Miftah Ismail’s six-pillar prescription to avoid Pakistan’s looming socio-economic collapse underscores the need for radical change.
However, governments, policymakers and technocrats repeat gender-blind remedies, which means they either neglect women’s specific needs and potential or limit their roles to mothers and dependents. Policies that do not centralise women as autonomous citizens guarantee failure and missed opportunities in all sectors.
Miftah’s first recommendation is population control but he does not recognise that the unmet need for modern contraception is over 50 per cent, or that responsibility for this task exclusively targets women. This high demand has been outstripping supply which requires funding and effective delivery.
Pakistan ranks 141 out of 146 globally on the sex ratio — the ratio of males to females — at birth and, as the world gets closer to gender parity in health, we lag at 143rd. Almost half of the six million children born annually over the last decade were unintended. Of unintended conceptions, 74-88pc ended in (unsafe) abortions.
Maternal mortality, neonatal health — the entire ecosystem of reproductive health places the burden on women. Pakistani women are less literate, deprived of access to information and suffer lifelong social and health side effects. A radical shift would mean that population control has to become primarily men’s responsibility.
Secondly, empowered and competitive local and district governments are crucial but a recent survey shows that citizens’ trust deficit in all tiers of state institutions is alarmingly high — 67pc of respondents did not trust the federal government, 65pc lacked trust in provincial governments and 52pc had a similar take on local governments. Unless local governments are flushed with monetary power, and women and marginalised groups are effectively represented, they will mirror upper-tier incompetency. Moreover, the indicators of governance efficacy have to be related to human development and not just limited to tax collection.
Thirdly, it’s a fallacy that restricting public sector expenditure is going to affect all classes or genders equally. Gender budgeting is essential and not only as an academic pursuit but an integrated, intersectional exercise against which all expenditures are audited accordingly.
Miftah’s fourth pillar, export promotion is a macro-level challenge but even in domestic production, we have a globally dismal and regressing rate of female labour force participation that stands only at 20.7pc, according to World Bank data from 2021. The disparity between men’s and women’s incomes is one of the highest in the world and Pakistan stands last for the advancement of female leadership in government, corporate sector, STEM and entrepreneurship. The Asian Development Bank estimates the gender wage gap is costing Pakistan an estimated Rs500 billion annually. Closing this gap can boost the country’s GDP by 30pc.
Fifth, improvement in agricultural productivity is directly related to Pakistani women since this is their main occupation — 67.91pc of all employed females work in this industry — but they are the lowest paid and earn less than half of the minimum wage. Only four out of 100 women qualified for agricultural loans according to a 2018 UN report. There is no regulatory provision, outrage or advocacy movement for such blatant violation and exploitation. Even if yields improve as Miftah wants, what guarantees economic justice for these women?
Some 82pc women work in the informal sector and the highly feminised home-based work (HBW) contributed almost Rs400bn to the economy as per a 2016 report. Legislative amendment has extended protection to HBWs against sexual harassment but informal workers do not qualify for any social security services.
Beyond Miftah’s comparison with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; most critical is the fact that in 2021, 71pc of Pakistani women did not have a bank account while 80pc of Indian women had active ones. Despite all moral rhetoric about their Islamic rights, Pakistani women and marginalised genders are mostly excluded from the property regime or ownership of means of production.
Finally, the sixth pillar, education, is arguably the most researched subject with considerable expertise but far more critical is the lack of feminist economists and no platform to profile existing ones.
The biggest impediment to levelling the field of economic opportunities is that our government and donor community lag behind all societal, economic and cultural change in Pakistan today. Further, there are archaic and redundant procedural requirements and no tax incentives for women’s business opportunities and impossible documentation criteria for them (including the ludicrous requirement of male family members for CNICs, or their status as ‘heads of households’).
The most lethal obstruction is the pervasive use, by officials and even uninformed Twitter commentators, of the catchphrase ‘culture’ as an excuse against women’s progress. Women resiliently find their way around stigma but insecure work conditions, lack of market opportunities, financial assistance or legal security, and the lack of incentivised, smart solutions that respond to the needs of women workers and entrepreneurs are material impediments. Civil society should be concentrating on strategic help around these, rather than pontificating on abstractions like western imperialism, culture, or religious agency.
The lesson from Miftah’s ‘pillars’ is that ‘it’s the economy’ alright, but it’s gravely erroneous to not apply a gendered lens when prescribing for growth, equality or development. Men and governments need to step up, or step aside, and let Pakistan’s women achieve these for themselves.
Afiya Shehrbano Zia is the author of ’Faith and Feminism in Pakistan’ (2018, SAP).