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A staggering gap

March 08, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

NAZIA is a student at a university. It has been quite a battle for her to be where she is, ie at a good university pursuing an undergraduate degree. She has been telling me that her parents did not want her to study beyond high school. She was eventually able to convince them but there were some conditions. She could not study the subject of her choice (literature) and had to take business studies and she has given her word that she is going to get married as soon as she graduates.

Nazia is a very gifted individual, with good skills now, and exceptional interpersonal abilities. Not letting her decide her future for herself, not ‘allowing’ her to go to graduate school and not ‘allowing’ her to work is not only negating her ‘self’, it is limiting her growth and is also imposing a large cost on society.

Over the two decades that I have been teaching, hundreds of young women have talked to me about related issues. At the university level, the most common issues have been about the choice of subject, the ability to go to graduate school and the ability to work. But there have also been discussions on issues of not having enough of a say in marriage decisions — ie when a woman should get married and the choice of partner.

But these young women hail from a small set who have been able to reach university level. Pakistan has millions of boys and girls who are not even able to go to school. And though gender gaps have narrowed over the last few decades, the gap is still very much there and the pace of narrowing has been very slow. The size of the gap is larger and the pace at which it has been narrowing has been slower in Pakistan than in many other comparable countries.

Millions of educated women are still not in the labour force. Imagine the impact on Pakistan if they were.

Beyond education, in terms of labour market participation, the gap between men and women, in Pakistan, is quite staggering and out of line with almost all comparable societies: only one in four or five women participate directly in labour markets. This is not about work. Most women work. It is about paid work.

Regional differences, across Pakistan, in opportunities for education and work, remain staggering as well. A young girl from rural Balochistan, if she survives infancy (our child mortality rates are still unacceptably high), has a slim chance she will be enrolled in a school. Only two to three girls from rural Balochistan are able to finish 10 years of education. Reaching college is still a rare phenomenon.

It is not just about rural Balochistan. Geography, location, gender, caste, family income, religion, ethnicity, and language continue to determine the life chances of our children. What is true of all children is doubly, if not more so, true for females. This needs to change — and change fast.

It is common to hear the argument that the future of Pakistan will be determined by the youth of Pakistan. We are a very young nation and since our youth constitute the majority of people in this country, they are going to be a decisive influence in most decisions where numbers will matter. We, as a nation, owe it to our youth to not only prepare them for what is to come but to ensure they are able to develop to their fullest potential. We cannot do that if we continue to ignore half our population.

Many of us also believe that the future of Pakistan is going to be shaped, decisively, by the women of Pakistan. We see signs and potential of this already. With the narrowing of the education gap, and with enrolments going up at the primary level, however slowly, over the last couple of decades, there are millions of young educated women in Pakistan now. They are not yet participating in the labour force in the numbers we would like to see, but imagine if they were able to come into the labour force, and in all fields. This would transform our work and workplaces completely.

Hundreds of thousands of women are already working as teachers. One could argue, and quite plausibly, that the impressive and massive expansion in the private provision of education has been made possible by the entry of these women in the workplace. This has been documented in research papers as well. It has been shown that low-fee private schools open up faster and expand more in areas where a girls’ high school was already present: the supply of teachers is there, private schools can open up with low initial investment.

Given the lack of other opportunities, the salaries of private-sector female teachers are low. This has allowed the low- and medium-fee private schools to come up and they have sprouted up around the country. More than 40 per cent of our enrolled children are now attending private schools. The percentage is much higher in urban areas. It is the educated young women who have made this possible. They are now producing the next generations of educated people.

Millions of educated women are still not in the labour force. Imagine the impact this could have on Pakistan if they entered the workplace.

The quest is for women’s agency and rights. These are an end in themselves. Every human being has to have basic rights, as many of us do. But we have significant other benefits attached to ensuring that all our children have the opportunity to develop their potential to the fullest. Though they are narrowing, differences in opportunity, based on gender, remain large. The quest is to level these differences. The Aurat March should be seen in this light as well.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019