THE Al-Karaouine University in Fez, Morocco, is the oldest existing, and continually operating, educational institution in the world, according to Unesco. It was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima Al-Fihri, in 859 AD. That is over 900 years before the US even came into existence, let alone Ame­rican universities, and even predates Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Interestingly, Pakistani women also value education. Research shows that when women are part of household decision-making, households tend to spend more on young girls’ education than the average household.

There are countless studies conducted worldwide that point to a direct connection between women’s education, women in the workforce and the growth and development of a country. How does Pakistan fare?

According to Our World in Data, women’s economic participation in Pakistan is lower than other countries with similar levels of GDP per capita, such as Bangladesh, and not very different from countries with much lower GDP per capita, such as Afghanistan.

Economic participation by women in Pakistan is currently a third that of the men. Male participation in the labour force is higher than that of women’s all over the world, but the extent of the male-female gap in Pakistan is extraordinarily large. Women’s participation in the workforce in Pakistan has been consistently low, hovering below 25 per cent. This puts us at odds with many other countries in the world.

Women’s participation in the workforce in Pakistan has been consistently low, hovering below 25pc.

Why should women’s participation in the workforce matter? We give three main reasons, each important on their own, and very difficult to ignore collectively.

One, the lack of female economic participation implies loss of a much-needed source of income and productivity in the country. One estimate suggests that closing the male-female gap in labour force participation could lead to a one-off 30pc boost in Pakistan’s GDP.

Two, when both men and women earn, households are generally better equipped to handle economic shocks, such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic and current global food and fuel shortages. With nearly half of the population estimated to be vulnerable to falling back into poverty, enabling women’s contribution to the household income should also be a priority for Pakistan. This will be even more important as Pakistan faces future climate-related disasters, given it is expected to be one of the top 10 countries most affected by climate change.

Third, beyond economic benefits, female employment has proven developmental impacts for the women and their dependants, and ultimately for the country. Data shows that working women in Pakistan are more likely to have a say in household consumption decisions, such as how much money goes towards education, as well as their own health decisions, including the use of contraceptives. Given the current discussion on population control, this has important policy implications for Pakistan.

A deeper dive into Pakistan’s particular situation reveals a complex picture and an uncomfortable truth. In Pakistan, there is considerable variation in female participation in the workforce across income quartiles, ranging from 24pc for the lowest quartile to only 7pc for women from the highest income quartile.

These women from poor households work primarily to augment income. However, they engage in informal, often low-pay work, and may not be compensated at the same rate as men. Our research suggests that multiple-earner households report a significantly higher monthly income: an average of Rs34,000 compared to Rs14,000 earned by single earner families. However, multiple-earner households where women also work (rather than only male family members) earn only Rs5,000 more than single-earner families.

On the other hand, in interviews with 2,500 women enrolled in undergraduate studies in public arts colleges of Lahore, more than four-fifths expressed a desire to work after graduation. However,even among this educated sub-sample, female labour force participation is very low.

If women have a desire to work, why aren’t more working? Research in Pakistan suggests that major challenges to women’s participation in the workforce include a lack of access to finance and childcare, inadequate skills, discrimination in the labour market, and a lack of safe transport options. Together, these factors contribute to many highly trained women, such as even medical doctors, finding it difficult to balance demanding work commitments with housework and travelling after dark.

However, in Pakistan, the uncomfortable truth is that social norms are the overarching constraint. Ultimately, husbands and fathers need to encourage their wives and daughters to work and value their contribution, and women need to use their education and contribute to both society and their households.

Surely the time has come to learn from Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia on how they have moved forward. The Quaid’s wise words, delivered at Aligarh in 1944, sum it up best: “...no nation can rise to the height of glory, unless women are side by side with you”.

Kulsum Ahmed is the director of Integrated Learning Means and an honorary fellow at the Consortium for Development Policy Research.

Farah Said is an associate director at the Mahbub ul Haq Research Centre and an assistant professor of economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This article draws from research funded by the International Growth Centre.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2022

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