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Layers of gender inequality

July 24, 2014

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A NEW collection of studies on gender inequality offers some useful insights into the pattern of women’s deprivation in several important areas that should help the state to plan better guarantees for their rights.

The eight studies, done by the Social Policy and Development Centre during 2009-2013, have been put together and edited by eminent economist and social activist, Dr Kaiser Bengali. Some of the studies lie outside the areas covered by various research and activists’ organisations and will thus be accepted as good additions to the existing literature on gender inequality.

A significant feature of this work is an effort to present disaggregated data on deprivation and discrimination suffered by women in all the four provinces. In a country where the demands for disaggregated data are often dismissed with contempt the importance of this exercise cannot be exaggerated.

It will not be possible to disagree with the premise advanced in the book: “The gendered treatment of a range of issues brings forth the fact that policymaking in aggregate terms tends to leave out aspects that affect women and, as such, an explicit gendered view is necessary.” The book attributes women’s deprivations to “traditional socio-cultural values, ingrained by feudal-tribal norms and compounded by religion”. One is tempted to add the ruling elite’s anti-woman biases as a significant factor.


Our planners will find much food for thought in a recent collection of studies on gender inequality.


The first study brings out the disadvantages faced by female-headed households (FHH) as compared to male-headed households (MHH). Illiteracy among FHH is more than twice the figure for MHH while unemployment among FHH is 5.5 times higher in urban areas and four times higher is rural areas. In the rural areas, 62pc of FHH and 52pc of MHH are in the low-income bracket (Rs0-10,000 per month).

In rural areas, more than two-thirds of households are landless — 90pc of FHH and 70pc of MHH do not own land. Among the poorest 20pc of households, about 80pc of FHH cannot pay for education (in case of MHH it is 62pc) and 24pc of FHH have no means to bear health care cost (for MHH, it is 7pc). The inequality within the poor class is manifest.

These figures make out an irrefutable case not only for mitigating the rural population’s land hunger but also for urgent steps to recognise women’s right to land.

The plight of rural women can be better understood if we look at their small share in the non-farm sector. While much has been written about women’s huge contribution to agriculture and their unpaid, unrecorded labour, the non-farm rural economy has been probed much less. The non-farm sector accounts for nearly 40pc of rural employment but only 15pc of the rural female labour force is engaged in this sector. The relationship between women’s low engagement in the non-farm sector and their poverty is obvious and so is their enhanced empowerment where opportunities for them are increased.

The book notes that the empowerment impact is highest in Balochistan and negligible in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In Punjab, the difference is highest in central Punjab and the lowest in southern Punjab. In the Sindh rice zone, the empowerment score is lower for women.

The country’s planners will find much food for thought in this study. An expansion of the rural non-farm economy and greater openings for women should be priority initiatives. That will boost the national economy besides improving women’s lot.

The study on the gendered impact of urban redevelopment and resettlement has acquired special relevance in view of the present government’s habit to ignore the losses and hardships caused to people dislocated due to grandiose ‘development’ projects.

The case studied here is Karachi’s ill-planned and badly executed Lyari Expressway project. The demolition of about 30,000 houses rendered around 250,000 people homeless. In place of their homes in the city centre, where work could be found relatively easily and near their living quarters, they were offered resettlement sites on the outskirts of the city that “placed the affectees at significant distance from employment, shopping and educational sites.”

Impact measurement at the time of displacement, at settlement and at the time of survey “shows massive disruption in the lives of the affectees. While housing conditions improved, employment, livelihood, education and socialisation factors worsened”. Women and children suffered greatly. Children’s education was disrupted: 40pc boys and 32pc girls were unable to resume their studies.

The study on gender dimensions of public spending on education and health confirms the public perception of discrimination against women and girls, while the one on gender dimensions of trade liberalisation and employment breaks new ground in gender studies. The study on the cost of violence against women will surprise many with its low estimates of medicare and litigation costs.

Perhaps a little more needed to be said about the price society pays for the loss of productivity among women traumatised by violence and abuse. Likewise, the study on women and law needed a deeper analysis not only of pro-women laws but also of the establishment’s lack of interest in implementing them and the women’s difficulties in accessing forums of relief and redress.

The study on the impact of natural disasters, such as the 2010 flood in Thatta is quite revealing. Both men and women had low employment rates before the flood (42pc and 18pc respectively) but while men’s employment rate stayed stable, the post-flood women’s employment rate fell to 13pc. The dislocation brought some relief too. The children’s gross primary enrolment improved and many women had their first ante-natal check-up. Which only shows how easily rural women’s stagnant lives can be changed.

Unfortunately civil society shares with the establishment a tendency to dismiss gender-based research as something of academic interest only. This must change. The research discussed here offers possibilities of opening tracks of development that promise to enhance the quality of people’s life by reducing the burden of gender inequality.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2014