Invisible workers

Published June 30, 2015
The writer is pursuing a PhD in women’s studies.
The writer is pursuing a PhD in women’s studies.

WHILE women’s general social status in Pakistan is clearly reflected in the country’s social indicators such as education, health and employment, it is the rural women who in particular perform poorly and lag far behind their urban counterparts.

The national female labour force participation rate in Pakistan indicates the country’s inadequate efforts to bring women into the economic mainstream — rural women not only experience discrimination but also suffer invisibility because their economic participation is greatly underestimated.

National statistics on women’s labour force participation reflect two important phenomena that further effect women’s participation and bar them from entering labour markets. First, the stigma attached to their employment discourages women from working outside their homes, and, therefore, most tend not to go out for paid work. This not only hampers women’s participation but also widens the large gap between men’s and women’s employment. Unfortunately, this situation further reinforces the perception that paid work is not appropriate for women.

Second, the women who enter the labour markets generally remain invisible because their work is not registered. Due to their low level of literacy, rural women are unable to enter formal employment, and end up working as unpaid labourers or household workers where they are either paid in cash or kind.

Rural women’s economic contribution is greatly undervalued

Moreover, national statistics on female employment are formed from the records of employed and waged workers. This usually includes women involved in formal employment and drawing regular salaries. Women’s informal paid work often remains unnoticed as they are not part of mainstream employment. National statistics continue to show low levels of female labour force participation.

The general perceptions thus must be corrected. The role of rural Pakistani women in supporting the country’s economy is not negligible; the rural economy is based on farming, which provides both men and women with economic opportunities. Women not only work hard with their male counterparts, their labour also ensures their family’s well-being. Once again, this labour is not taken into account because it is informal, unregistered and unrecorded. Often perceived as unproductive, such labour further devaluates women’s work and the benefits they derive from it.

Predictably, as in other South Asian regions, women’s access to employment opportunities in the rural areas of Pakistan is also subject to patriarchal authority. Cultural norms are central in curtailing women’s economic opportunities and controlling their mobility. Young women are the worst sufferers of this; they are highly unlikely to enter employment markets or if allowed, their labour is withdrawn from markets once the family’s needs are fulfilled. Those who fail to carry out income-generating activities work from home to support their families.

In this context, women’s home-based work such as handicrafts, sewing, knitting etc plays a central role in their family’s welfare. This work has a threefold purpose: one, it is used as barter that rural women exchange for each other’s services; two, it is utilised for the family’s savings because usually, rural women produce things of daily use so that family members do not need to buy them from the market; three, this work is sold and the money earned from it is either used as surplus income or spent on the family’s needs.

Women’s hard-earned money is important in another way. Owing to the high rate of unemployment, a large number of men in villages do not have regular jobs and rely on farming and temporary employment. What women earn from their informal paid work then becomes essential to the family’s well-being. For example, the majority of women spend this money on their children’s clothing and healthcare while others share this money with their husbands.

Inequality in the payment of wages is a common phenomenon in many parts of patriarchal South Asia. Rural women in Pakistan are no different from their other South Asian counterparts in experiencing this discrimination. Dominance of men in the public sphere, lack of proper markets and women’s restricted access to those markets are some of the issues that bar women from making a reasonable amount in return for their labour. Ultimately, women often have to depend on the middleman who sells their products at two to three times higher prices than what he buys from the women. Rural women are often aware of this exploitation but because of their confinement to the private sphere they are helpless — if they lose this source, they will end up selling nothing.

In this regard, rural women’s contribution to their families and to society as a whole is crucial for the socio-economic fabric and for the economic development of the country as a whole. The surplus income they generate means a lot when it comes to addressing emergencies and improving the living standard of the family. And yet, rural women’s contribution is hardly recognised.

The writer is pursuing a PhD in women’s studies.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2015

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