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The damning state of Pakistan's women

Pakistani women are undereducated, physically and mentally abused and lack access to information and financial services.
Updated Jun 26, 2019 09:58am

Economic indicators are an important measure to track a country’s progress, but by themselves and without context, they do not mean much.

Looking at economic data, quarter by quarter, year by year, without focusing on what’s driving changes, or lack thereof, is like looking at the blood sugar levels of a patient without paying attention to that person’s lifestyle or dietary habits.

In the run-up to this fiscal year’s budget, Pakistan’s print, electronic and social media has been drowning in economic data. However, almost no one has paid attention to the underlying social indicators that reflect what ails Pakistan’s economy and its society at large.

A holistic analysis of these ailments is worthy of a thesis by itself. I will, however, try to use some key — and at times, shocking — indicators to paint a picture of the crisis facing Pakistan.

But first, a bit about economic development: sustainable economic growth of a society occurs when a strong social foundation exists, and this foundation is only laid when key indicators, particularly those that measure the wellbeing of women in society, begin to improve.

GDP growth, exports, tax revenues, foreign exchange reserves and other economic indicators can only be sustainably improved when such a foundation exists.

The Analytical Angle: Why haven’t past education reforms had more effect?

The 2017-18 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) offers us a glimpse into key social indicators and can explain why Pakistan is consistently falling behind the rest of the world. According to this survey, Pakistan’s women are undereducated, physically and mentally abused and lack access to information and financial services.

According to the survey data, almost 49.2 per cent of ever-married women aged 15-49 had no education whatsoever (the figure is 25.4pc for men). If you look at rural women by themselves, the figure rises to nearly 61.6pc (33.3pc for men).

Only 13.1pc of women in Pakistan have attained an education level of Class 11 or higher (18.9pc for men); 21.5pc of women who have had no schooling or studied between Class 1-9 can read a whole sentence (24pc for men).

Half of the women surveyed were illiterate, which is evidence on its own that the state has failed its citizens.

Based on these indicators, we can conclude that women in Pakistan have a strong disadvantage in terms of access to employment and information. This has dire consequences not only for women themselves, but for their children and society writ large.

Literacy and violence

Many in Pakistan claim that social media and the internet have changed the country, but according to the data, the information age has yet to reach almost 9 in 10 women in Pakistan. The PDHS data shows that 29.8pc of men surveyed have ever used the internet, while only 12.6pc of women reported to have ever used the internet.

High illiteracy means that women cannot inform themselves, and the PDHS shows that only 5.1pc of women read a newspaper at least once a week, compared to 27.1pc of men.

Only 6pc of women have and use a bank account, compared to 31.6pc of men. 92.7pc of men own a mobile phone, while only 39.2pc of women said that they own a mobile phone.

Lack of education and access to information leads to a lack of employment opportunities. Only 17.3pc of women said that they were currently employed (96.1pc for men), while an astounding 80pc of women said they had not been employed in the last 12 months preceding the survey (2.3pc for men).

The data also highlights that even when women attain education, they tend to not work.



According to the PDHS, 62.5pc of women in the highest wealth quintile have attained an education level of Class 10 or higher. However, the employment rate is only 11.5pc among these wealthy women, meaning that the vast majority of highly educated women are not putting their education to productive use and are choosing to stay at home.

Poorly educated and with little to no prospects of employment, it is also very common for Pakistani women to experience physical violence.

The data shows that 27.6pc of women have experienced physical violence since age 15. Within this group, 14.6pc reported experiencing physical violence often or sometimes in the past 12 months.

Violence committed by husbands is the most common form of violence women face, and 23.7pc of women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from their spouse.

These women have no choice but to bear this violence, and 56.4pc of women have never sought help and never told anyone about the violence that they have faced.

Left behind?

Pakistan has a fertility rate of 3.6 births per woman, one of the highest in the world. Poorly educated, facing physical and sexual violence and with little to no access to information, Pakistan’s women are being asked to raise a new generation in a society that is already facing major resource constraints.

According to the PDHS, 38pc of children under the age of five in Pakistan are stunted and 23pc of children under the age of five are underweight. This means that a significant proportion of Pakistan’s future generations are growing up with a high risk of mental and physical disability.

According to the 2017 census, there are over 101 million women in Pakistan, making up almost 49pc of the country’s population. With over a 100 million Pakistani citizens facing an educational, employment, financial, physical, and emotional crisis, is it any surprise that the country continues to fall behind the rest of the world?

Also read: I'm glad Imran Khan has highlighted stunting. But there is more to it than clean water and food

It is preposterous that, faced with such a crisis, Pakistan’s elite wants to discuss and debate whether this International Monetary Fund bailout will be the last one ever, whether the country needs a commission to investigate the debt taken on in the last decade or whether a quote is attributed to Gibran or Tagore.

A volcano is bubbling under the surface and it will burst forth sooner or later. If Pakistan does not get its act together, this nuclear-armed country will find itself in a crisis unlike any faced by a nation-state in the twenty-first century.


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