Persistent disparity

Published February 10, 2022
The writer has a doctorate degree in women’s studies.
The writer has a doctorate degree in women’s studies.

EQUAL rights are meant for everyone. And yet gender-based discrimination continues to deprive women and girls of their rights and opportunities. The SDGs aim at achieving gender equality and urge governments to focus on women’s educational attainment, participation in the labour market and representation in public through policy implementation. Unfortunately, the efforts, particularly in low-income countries, are not successful where disparities in health and education are stronger and bargaining power in marriages is weaker.

Pakistan has shown progress by investing more in women’s education, creating economic opportunities and enacting laws to protect women in the public and private spheres. It has introduced various interventions to reduce gender gaps in education, health and economic empowerment — for instance, BISP cash transfer, Youth Loan Scheme, Kamyab Jawan Programme, Waseela-i-Taleem, free education for girls, health card schemes etc. Yet, the effort has not had the expected results. Social indicators show how vulnerable women still are. For example, the female literacy rate is 49 per cent against the male literacy rate of 71pc. The female literacy rate is lower in rural areas at just 38pc. Pakistan has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the region. Improving maternal health in the country has been a huge challenge. The Global Gender Gap ranking by the World Economic Forum places Pakistan at 153 out of 156 countries. With a widening gender gap, Pakistan is only better than Afghanistan.

When we talk about gender equality in the Pakistani context, we must consider what equality we are looking for and why gender inequality in Pakistan is so persistent even with development. Many studies show the link between gender equality and economic growth, particularly through education. The question is, how do society-specific factors determine women’s status and hamper progress on reducing gender gaps?

In our society, descent is traced through the male line and females have to leave their parents when they marry. This results in gender discrimination because parents want sons whom they value more and look upon as their future security. Beliefs and attitudes to women’s ‘honour’ restrict women’s mobility.

Why are we unable to end gender inequality?

Poverty hampers women’s empowerment. Most of Pakistan’s population lives in the rural areas in disadvantaged conditions. Poverty explains why the underprivileged opt for localised practices that undermine women’s status, eg paying bride price, selling daughters to settle a dispute, etc.

Girl child marriages frequently witnessed among the poor and communities with low literacy rates are also responsible for women’s disempowerment. It leads to early maternity which eliminates all possibilities of seeking education. Many girls are barred from going to school with the onset of puberty. Although Sindh has introduced the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013, one report shows an increase in girl child marriages in different districts in Sindh. Jacobabad tops the list with an 8.8pc increase in the marriages of girls under 15.

There is no denying that gender equality contributes to economic growth, but how can we reduce the gap without half of the population having access to educational and economic opportunities? Covid-19 has affected SDG progress and threatened the future of millions of girls. Closing gender gaps is important because it is not only about economic growth but also providing social and economic justice to a deprived section of society.

There are several cultural factors that hinder gender equality and negatively impact a woman’s well-being. Poverty exacerbates the situation. With an increasing number of people falling below the poverty line, it is highly likely that the gender gap will widen further in the country. It is important that interventions to close the gender gap factor in regressive societal mores. For instance, inclusive policies must be designed in girls’ education — free education on its own won’t solve the problem unless issues such as mobility are also taken into account. Teachers must be trained to address the challenge of girls dropping out of school.

Changes in the cultural environment should be undertaken to allow women to capitalise on economic opportunities. Efforts to regularise the informal economy, particularly in the rural areas where women’s economic contribution is crucial but invisible, would be a step in this direction. Promotion of women-specific economic opportunities such as packaging can also ensure income generation. Increasing women’s access to potential markets and introducing e-commerce through training can make a significant difference to the lives of young educated women. Such moves are crucial to removing the sociocultural barriers that prevent women from getting ahead.

The writer has a doctorate degree in women’s studies.

Twitter: @AghaNadia

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2022

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