Gender agenda

Updated 13 Oct 2019


The writer is an independent researcher, social policy analyst and lecturer in international development and global migration.
The writer is an independent researcher, social policy analyst and lecturer in international development and global migration.

NAYA Pakistan may be new for some, but for others it is turning out to be the same old one, though in some ways it is a very different kind of ‘old’.

This is especially true for women in Pakistan. Since the new government took the reins, it has kept a safe distance from women’s rights issues, pre-empted by its then future prime minister’s misogynist pre-election statement last year, that “feminism has degraded motherhood”.

Sure enough, there are only a handful of women ministers in the current cabinet at a time when many countries, including those in the developing world, are at least on paper aiming for gender parity in politics. Moreover, there is no federal ministry for either gender or women’s rights.

This is a contradictory state of affairs at a time when social movements are taking the world by storm, be they the #MeToo movement or the extinction rebellion. Granted these have not found enough traction in Pakistan as yet. But the question is, why not?

Have things changed for women in ‘naya’ Pakistan?

Because Pakistan presents a dismal picture when it comes to its women population. Female literacy rates stand at 51.8 per cent. In 2017-2018, the female labour force participation rate was estimated at 20.1pc. Pakistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia, and in 2017, it ranked a low 133 out of 189 on the Global Gender Inequality Index. We had one of the most vibrant social movements for women’s rights in the 1980s which challenged the status quo head-on, quite literally, against police batons and tear gas. Not so much now. While many can argue that the state of women in Pakistan has in many ways gradually changed for the better, we still lack a prominent agenda for women’s rights in Pakistan that feeds off these new movements.

It is true that younger women in the country are stepping forward and displaying greater innovation and technological know-how in trying to find and assert their own identity and helping other Pakistani women do so as well. Twitter is now the urban Pakistani female activist’s best friend. Start-ups and incubators, the latest trend in employment generation, are addressing more and more issues related to women, such as their mobility, personal hygiene and reproductive practices. Gender parity is on the agenda of many prominent large-scale institutions, both in hiring and targeting their audiences.

But how long will this last? This question is important primarily because these interventions are spearheaded mostly by private individuals and corporations, which is no doubt a good thing. But they must also be a motivator for developing a robust government policy if they stand a chance of multiplying, being scaled up and indeed, surviving.

While modernity and technology are fast becoming the go-to ambition for many urbanised women, the basic tenets of equality are still missing from the agenda, like protecting women and young girls from brutal violence and murder, correcting inheritance laws and expanding access to justice. And technology is simply not enough to remedy any of this.

Why hasn’t naya Pakistan even begun to address any of these issues at the highest levels of policymaking more than a year into this government’s mandate? Why, for instance, does the government still shy away from including women’s informal labour in official national statistics, or discarding the archaic practice of requiring male consent or guardianship for women to obtain national identity documents? Or for that matter, making it compulsory for a woman’s right to divorce to be included in the nikahnama?

While women are gradually being exposed to a world of opportunity, in Pakistan they are still not being given the avenues to make the most of them in the long term. Pakistan may see more female doctors and corporate managers graduate through its attempts to implement gender parity. But what guarantee do we have that those numbers will be sustained in the workforce when we have still not tackled core issues such as gender equality in household decision-making? And none of these interventions target Pakistan’s predominantly rural areas.

Having worked in the gender equality or gender mainstreaming environment as a professional for over two decades, I can safely say that change is indeed visible. But this is not a change that is sustainable. Gender parity in institutions or technological advancements may be a good beginning, but this can be described as more of a quick fix than a long-term solution because the effort needs to be steady and sustained. Without a receptive policy and state environment, such interventions can only last so long.

Will naya Pakistan transform the advancement that women have fought for so tirelessly around the world into permanent fixtures in our governance system? Or will it let them fade away just like purana Pakistan had been doing so all these years?

It would be nice to get a straight answer.

The writer is an independent researcher, social policy analyst and lecturer in international development and global migration.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2019