Strong words need strong action

March 09, 2020


As things stand today, the exclusion of women from the economic decision-making mainstream and sustainable development are two mutually exclusive components of an equation in which fairness, competitiveness, efficiency and innovations are all at stake. Having said that, the expected gains of equitable women participation are too compelling to be ignored.

Based on the current World Bank Group report, Pakistan stands to rake in a whopping $1.3 trillion ‘gender dividend’ by closing gaps in lifetime earnings between men and women. Pakistan’s 0.8 per cent share in the global economy is a relevant marker for the calculation, assuming everything else remains the same.

Last week the World Bank projected $172tr gain in the global economy if gender parity is achieved. To avoid confusion, it is pertinent to note that the astronomical numbers reflect the projected unrealised lifetime earnings, and not the GDP, which, put simply, is the added value to the economy of a country in a year. The current global GDP is estimated to be $90.5tr. Pakistan’s GDP is valued at $340 billion in 2020.

The ample evidence of gender parity dividends did convince the world of its value after a painfully long time. The acquired wisdom was reflected in the global economic agenda expressed in the shape of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) at the turn of the century and subsequently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015.

‘Advancing women equality and gender representation in the workforce is bound to deliver tremendous dividends, besides being a social and moral imperative,’ says Shazad Dada

Gender parity sits at the core of many of these goals. Better outcomes are expected for SDGs compared to the MDGs as the corporate sector was also taken on board in 2015, eying the growing role of market in the economy. The business leaders owned up and pledged to weave in the SDGs in their business strategy. This happened in a UN meeting on SDGs in 2015.

Pakistan has made some movement towards improving the gender balance, but the pace is far from satisfactory. The country missed all the MDGs, including the ones specific to women, and the progress on SDGs has not been up to the mark either. Pakistan was ranked 151 out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index (GGI) which benchmarks its ranking on female economic participation and opportunities, education attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

This seriously embarrassing placement, mind you, came 40 years after Pakistani women bore the brunt of repression under General Zia’s dictatorship. The legal framework was altered to legitimise toxic views and to confine the women to their homes. All sorts of archaic anti-women laws have since been scrapped as the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights, was restored with the return of democracy. New laws to protect and promote women were added and Pakistan signed global conventions to protect women and other weaker segments.

Currently, the policy of stabilisation under IMF tutelage has slowed down the national economy, and has spiked inflation and joblessness. For the poor, especially women at the bottom of pile, the cure already feels worse than the disease. The economic wizards of PTI argue that there is no option but to endure the pain.

It will not hurt if the PTI could broaden the economic decision-making base and, beside experts, encourage women economists and parliamentarians to assist in finding a viable, less painful alternative economic strategy. We know women are well-versed in making more of less. As homemakers, they attend to the needs of all family members within the family budget irrespective of the size.

Dr Sania Nishtar, PM’s special assistant and federal minister for poverty alleviation and social protection, believes that PTI is alive to economic distress of weaker segments, including women. She emailed the following reply to our query on the issue:

“Given the inequities, Ehsaas is centred around principle of inclusivity and comprehensiveness with a focus on leaving no one behind, especially women and marginalised populations. Therefore, Ehsaas encompasses several initiatives targeted towards women across a plethora of domains, including financial empowerment, education, healthcare, legislation, policy and digital inclusion.

“Foundational to Ehsaas is the realisation that it is critically important to ensure that the programme is responsive to the needs of women in the country, who comprise 49 per cent of the total population as per the 2017 Census. To ensure that women beneficiaries are not under-represented, the ambition of Ehsaas is to skew critical initiatives towards women by ensuring that at least 50pc of all beneficiaries targeted by the programme across the initiatives are women.”

The minister also listed all the initiatives under the social protection plan (see the box item).

Fortunately, the corporate sector seems to be getting more responsive to the idea of women inclusion. The pressure exerted by the trading partners to conform to global standards and the commitment of multinational firms to SDGs must also have contributed to the evolving trend.

Commenting on the subject of women empowerment, Shazad Dada, President of the Overseas Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OICCI), emailed his response thus: “for Pakistan’s prosperity we need to enable full potential of women. Advancing women equality and gender representation in workforce is bound to deliver tremendous dividends for Pakistan, besides being a social and moral imperative.

“Based on extensive interaction among its members, OICCI has recommended that all private and public-sector organisations need to create conducive and sustainable working environment for women to join, thrive and realise their full potential.

“We have also recommended our member organisations to introduce, among other initiatives, agile working environment, mitigate unconscious bias and provide equal opportunities for growth and development for their female employees. OICCI has also recommended that the government should set a target of 20pc women in management positions by 2022.”

The OICCI claims that 80pc of the OICCI member companies are involved in activities related to women empowerment. A survey of OICCI members show that female employees are 13pc of their workforce, 12pc women are holding top leadership (C level) positions, 15pc middle level executive positions and 36pc junior executive positions. Some firms have much higher, 30-40pc, leadership positions occupied by female executives with overseas assignment.

The Centre of Excellence in Responsible Business (CERB), a body created by the Pakistan Business Council, treats gender equality as one of its key strategic targets. It carries out surveys and collaborates with global partners, such as the International Finance Corporation and the United Nations Development Programme, to nudge the private companies to achieve gender balance.

In 2017, it launched the Gender Balance Awards. To guide firms in recruiting, retaining and promoting more women, it has published five case studies. Fuad Hashmi, the CERB Executive Director, said: “diversity and inclusion go hand in hand, leading to sound economic growth”.

The Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) has made concerted efforts to promote women entrepreneurs and five committees headed by women members are operational. Anjum Nisar, the FPCCI President, told Dawn over the phone from Lahore that he supported greater women participation in the labour force and champions the cause of getting relevant laws implemented with the aim of improving working conditions and wage parity.

These are all strong words, indeed. What the country needs, however, is an even stronger strategic prioritisation. The wait for Pakistani woman is not over yet.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 9th, 2020