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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 26 Jun, 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.

Do you have an eye on Pakistan’s economy and development? Share your insights with us at


Author Image

Uzair Younus is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (29) Closed

D Suryanarayana
Jun 25, 2019 05:42pm
Unless the women are educated and empowered there can be no real progress.Gods reside where women are respected and regarded
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Jamil Soomro, New York City
Jun 25, 2019 05:43pm
Fertility rate of 3.6 births per woman,one of the highest in the world.49p.c.of country's population is women.If whatever the Writer has written in his article is true then truly it is a sorry state of affairs for the women of Pakistan.Something drastic needs to be done to correct this status quo.
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M. Emad
Jun 25, 2019 05:43pm
In recent years, Pakistani beautiful women are 'sold' into marriage to Chinese men, trafficked and endure rape in China.
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Jun 25, 2019 06:27pm
Women comprise nearly half of our economic resource but are virtually imprisoned by ancient traditions and values upheld by men who have literally achieved nothing in their lives except maybe reproduce more trash like them which are further burdening the economy. They experience all kinds of violence and abuse, whether in the chaar deewari or outside on the street, and they need to be given full endorsement and protection from the state to allow them to live their lives like normal human beings
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Jun 25, 2019 07:22pm
This is a sad reality of women in PK and affects children that follow. This reality needs to be debated at the highest level an must pain the politicians to their core. First have mandatory 1-2 child per couple and cut that medically by law. Rampant population growth will kill the country without resources and infra-structures.
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Jun 25, 2019 08:38pm
We know all this. We also know what we must do to get ourselves out of this situation. The question is why there has been no progress? One thing is that majority of Pakistani women are not literate. But the literate ones don't fight for themselves either. I know it's not easy. But those are who financially independent and educated still cave for for misogyny. WHY, fellow sisters?
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Rita D.M.
Jun 25, 2019 08:52pm
I'm from Italy. I was very sad reading about women situation in Pakistan. I hope their situation in the future will be better than now.
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Jun 25, 2019 09:20pm
"Uzair Younus is director at the South Asia Practice at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategic consulting firm based in Washington DC." I'm always a little suspicious of academics who come from the US, but there's no arguing with the statistics he offers. Sadly, frustratingly, the process of gender parity is a very, very slow one in Pakistan, but as the country urbanises more, and more people find work in cities, this rural culture will gradually fade.
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Lord Abbott of Abbottabad
Jun 25, 2019 09:57pm
@ Laila, Hi, the better question would be - "WHY, fellow brothers?"
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Jun 25, 2019 11:55pm
@Rita D.M. , Buena Sera, Our situation is down to corruption and illiteracy. This has been going on for decades but I suspect our downfall really started when then leader Zia Ul Haq joined hands with preacher, Tahir ul Qadri and started legislating based on a misogynistic interpretation of religion. Look up the Hudood Ordinance. This was before my time but that's my conclusion when I try to trace this issue back to its origin. Thanks for your lovely comment.
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Jun 25, 2019 11:56pm
To seek knowledge is obligatory for men and women (in Islam). I agree that Pakistan lacks far behind in literacy rates especially women. Which volcano erupted in the west resulting in destruction of family system, labour shortages and morally corupt society ?
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Jun 25, 2019 11:59pm
@M. Emad, facilitated by local Pakistani corrupt officials, gangs and traffickers. Even the police is involved. So don't say that the Chinese just came over and did all this on their own with no help from Pakistanis to circumvent law, translate paperwork, get official affidavits and operating brothels in posh rews like defence. Its not like they could have done this in their own. Language and culture barriers. And they don't look Pakistani. So you must blame those Pakistanis who enabled this.
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Jun 26, 2019 04:38am
How is the state of the men any better?
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Jun 26, 2019 06:59am
@HashBrown®, Typical pakistani mindset of searching for conspiracy when on eshows you mirror.Close your eyes and pretend nothing is wrong .When you wake up its will be too late.
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Bharat Patel
Jun 26, 2019 07:42am
In Kerala, where there is 95% literacy , the story has changed altogether In Gujarat itself as of today, the state Government encourages girls and women to study . The literacy rate for Muslim women in Gujarat is in the highest range in Indian terms. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 80's, the girls schools were closed down Education has empowered Muslim women in India
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Bharat Patel
Jun 26, 2019 07:44am
@Laila, It is a terrible question to ask of you fellow sisters. When they did fight back in Waziristan, against discrimination ( just a few weeks ago ) them men called them traitors. Is there one woman who is now going to stand up and be counted ?
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Jun 26, 2019 07:58am
interesting that all the highly educated analysts that comment live abroad and are men too. great article, yes structurally system is wrong for sure.
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Jun 26, 2019 07:59am
@M. Emad, no Chinese government cracked down with a retired Pakistani brigadier and have banned marriage visas for pakistani women to China
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Jun 26, 2019 09:22am
We need to make progress but we don't engage in practices such as FGM and female foeticide like some other countries. We elect women as leaders, democratically. We had our first female presidential candidate in the 60s. She lost unfairly. It took us 20 years to elect a woman leader after that. Since they experienced this just a couple of years ago, given our standard, we can assume that they'll elect their first female leader in the 2040s. Women are also guaranteed 20% seats in parliament.
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M. H.
Jun 26, 2019 09:22am
Very recently, an advertising campaign on women's empowerment aired by a global detergent company had to be withdrawn locally because of the immense backlash it faced on social media and elsewhere. If the hysterical and misplaced reactions to this campaign are anything to go by, am not surprised at all by the statistics shared in this article (with or without any foreign agenda), and why men would find it difficult to even consider giving up their power and privilege over women when it's been enjoyed and taken for granted for centuries! Using religion, culture and tradition to continue to damn women to their relegated place in society is in the best interests of those weilding that power. Would take many more centuries in an environment like ours to loosen that stranglehold of men over women in favour of equality for all!
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Jun 26, 2019 11:10am
All these are exactly explaining about position of women in India, Pakistan dared to publish it while India does have guts to accept it. But once you know your shortcomings, you can overcome, if you donot accept your shortcomings, how you will repair it.
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Jun 26, 2019 11:11am
@M. Emad, Pakistan government should punish them who are doing so. It is pride of Pakistan, how they can be sold in China.
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Afzal Mirza
Jun 26, 2019 12:34pm
Statistics here and statistics there. This is all academic. The gender disparity is not only in Pakistan and/or India (lack of literacy in general), it prevails also in Europe to a great extent. I am living Europe for the last 48 years and have observed and learned from various reports the difference in the male/female earnings for same job! This problem is not specifically for poor countries, it exists in the highly developed / industrialised nations as well!
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Jun 26, 2019 12:38pm
@HashBrown®, i felt these facts exaggerated too.
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Jun 26, 2019 01:09pm
@Rebirth, What are you taking about? Who is 'they'? It's like you are arguing 'two wrongs make a right' because at least we aren't doing FGM or female foeticide.. We are doing everyrhing else and you don't know how many women are pushed to abort their babies because they are female. You don't know the many miscarriages brought on by domestic violence. We have turned our women into compliant slaves with no other options but to stay and suffer. Women are not treated as equals. It's a big deal!
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Jun 26, 2019 01:16pm
@Lord Abbott of Abbottabad, Dear brother, I have sought to reply you many times on others articles but never made it. Hope it is different this time. You are right. But we are at across road. Brothers are perpetuating these crimes and evil. We can't except them to willingly give up the power. There are many good brothers, like you, but I fearnot enough. The struggle must come from us. We must learn to stand against societal and familial pressure. Enforce our sharia rights.
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Jun 26, 2019 02:53pm
@Laila, I understand what you are aiming to convey through this but in certain situations its not in the control of "fellow sisters" to liberate themselves from such cage. They are not to blame for this. Even if one is financially independent and literate, they could be mentally or psychologically tortured by their family or men in their life. I agree that they can make a difference but we can't ignore the patriarchal structure of our society that does not allow women to live freely.
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Jun 26, 2019 03:12pm
Pakistani women are undereducated, physically and mentally abused and lack access to information and financial services. Nevertheless, they are the most educated, sophisticated progressive and liberated women in the world for the simple reason Pakistan is,by definition, the most superlative country in every aspect.
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jdsir jagdev
Jun 26, 2019 10:50pm
educate a man,you educate a single person, educate a girl(woman) you educate a whole family( generation).
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