Empowering women

Female informal workers’ contributions remain widely unnoticed

Empowering women

The informal economy is an unregulated, unrecognised and unregistered economic sector where the labour force remains deprived of public welfare and basic socio-economic security. This segment of the economy is estimated to contribute more than 50 per cent of the GDP in Pakistan and employ more than 70 per cent of the workforce, more women than men.

Comprehensive academic analysis is available on the link between state regulation/ facilitation and reduction in barriers to entry into the formal sector for informal economic entities. Studies of developing countries blame neo-liberal policies for the unprecedented increase in the size of the informal economic sector in the Third World.

The size and nature of the informal economy are directly linked to the social economy. Social-economic relations rely on a system of exchange based on personal connections and values instead of monetary or material rudiments. There are no provisions for returns, especially for weaker segments of society. Moreover, emotions remain at the core of analysis of a social economy. These cannot be rigorously quantified on account of their subjective nature. As a result despite their large contributions to informal economy the share of women does not get accounted in a satisfactory manner.

The issue is no longer labour force participation. Women are already working at their homes, as domestic workers in others’ homes and as sub-contracted industrial workers.

Discussions and policies now need to be directed towards their economic integration. Recognising the women already in the labour force, paying them fairly and facilitating them are key necessities, especially for those surviving in economically marginalised and physically unsafe work environments.

The general practice of social religiosity systemically reinforces male dominance in the economic and public sphere. A conservative interpretation of religion supports the socio-cultural mores that restrain women’s mobility in public spaces and participation in many economic activities.

Recognising the women already in the workforce, paying them fairly and facilitating them are key necessities, especially for those surviving in economically marginalised and physically unsafe work environments in the informal sector.

The gendered power dynamics also dictate what constitutes paid work. The social constructs of men as the sole providers for the households and women as persons in constant need of protection disregards the stability women provide at the grassroots economy. Even if a woman does no pad work, her contribution through household chores, childcare and emotional support in the family is significant. Frequently, such contribution goes unacknowledged and lacks contractual stipulation.

Neo-liberal policies allow international organisations to work for women’s advancement. However, it is mostly limited to temporary monetary assistance. The women in informal economies need a lot more than that. They need tangible returns for their role, which is mostly viewed as non-economic. Those actually earning a living need a voice. This can only become feasible once their mobility in the public sphere is normalised and they are able to unionise and generate communal solidarity. This will also allow them to learn the practical tactics through contact-making in the field, improve their negotiation skills and surpass value chain exploitation when working in sub-contracts.

Many women are sulking under the onus of religious piety and family ‘honour.‘ Conservative religious interpretations have always been oppressive towards them. Sympathy for women mainly entails charity. The state and donor agencies do not focus on facilitating women in achieving financial independence and breaking away from patriarchic preferences in the long run. This has the potential to overshadow the need to transform the social approach and focus on providing autonomy and tangible progress to women.

The solution lies in creating societal readiness for universal human rights and freedoms. Not taking into consideration women’s economic role dehumanises them. Many societal norm, like burdening women with domestic work, restrict their socio-economic mobility.

The social and political leadership need to build a rhetoric favouring women’s financial autonomy and economic contribution. Theoretically, the informal sector represents a black economy. The state therefore resists calls for protecting informal workers. Pakistan needs to change that and protect the vulnerable social groups engaged in informal work.

The debate should not be limited to how the informal sector is constituted. For overall economic development, the vulnerable segments of society must be enabled to work, flourish and get the deserved reward and opportunities.

The writer works for Department of    Governance and   Global Studies at Information Technology University

Empowering women