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Part of the table or part of the menu

July 29, 2012

On an international level, women still find themselves in a disadvantageous position despite being a part of the workforce since the Industrial Revolution. A credible study on the subject concludes that for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 75 cents, elucidates Moniza Inam

Farida Afridi, a 26-year-old woman was killed recently near Peshawar for her paid job. She was working for Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA), an organisation working towards women empowerment and awareness. This is not the first time in Pakistan that a woman has been killed for her paid employment as many working women — especially in the development sector — have suffered the same fate. Cynics can brush off this incident as an isolated exception or an extreme case but there are dangerous precedents and the country — at least some parts of it — is becoming increasingly hostile and intolerant to women working in the public sphere.

On an international level, women are still in a disadvantageous position despite being a part of the workforce since the Industrial Revolution. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistics, they represent 50 per cent of the population, 30 per cent of the labour force, perform 60 per cent of all working hours, receive 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than one per cent of the world’s property. These figures are self-explanatory and tell the whole story of women's struggle and the infamous ‘glass ceiling’ which although ‘cracked in places’ remains firm. A credible study on the subject concludes that for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 75 cents.

When Fatma Gul Unal, an economist at UN Women, headquarters, New York, is asked what steps she will suggest to make conditions conducive for women employment in general and in the global South in particular, she answers, "I think one of the first steps to make employment conditions conducive for women will be to lift the disproportionate weight of the ‘care labour’ off of the shoulders of women and girls. Women most often cannot work in formal high paid jobs, and cannot realise their human potential because of their disproportionate burden of housework and care work. If states can provide families with support, and also if men are more willing to share responsibility, then in my view the largest stumbling block that has been preventing women to be part of the formal labour force will be eased significantly.

"Secondly, states can encourage women’s employment through providing women educational opportunities that may help them improve their marketable skills. Thirdly, when workplaces and streets and public transportation will be safer, women are more likely to engage in public life, which work life is part of. Depending on the context, states and corporations should ensure secure and comfortable environment for women, which should be subject to a regular third party audit.

“Last but not the least, in the global South, most of women’s employment is either in agriculture or informal service sector. One way to increase the wellbeing of women would be to improve the working conditions of existing employment for the women of the South providing women farmers credit on favourable terms, and agricultural extension services (technical help) and easier access to land, credit and input markets (fertilisers, seeds, etc.) may help women to improve their lives and their businesses. For women working in the services sector, simple steps taken by the states could improve women’s lives tremendously, such as providing ‘hotlines’ for abuse at work, particularly for those working in the services sector, especially household services.”

I heard a very interesting statement that ‘women should be part of the table (in terms of macroeconomic indices) otherwise they would be part of the menu’ in a seminar recently. When asked to elaborate, the economist explains that to be part of the table means to be part of the platforms that are influential and instrumental in decision-making, such as the administrative positions in states, markets, and families. Regarding macroeconomic indices, one can then look at these three different dimensions and suggest some indices to see if women are part of the table or the menu.

On the state level, it means a) representation of women in parliaments, ministerial bodies, local governance bodies, b) amount of funds allocated and spent on issues regarding women’s health, on primary education (since secondary and tertiary education is mostly dominated by male students), on care sector and on sectors and issues that are mostly populated by women, or focusing on their issues and c) sources of tax revenues.

In the markets, it translates into representation of women in highly paid, enormously productive formal sector jobs, representation in managerial and professional positions in the private and public companies, ratio of female to male earned income, and finally, ratio of female to male wealth.

In the private sphere, it is equivalent to questioning the whole mechanism of gender rights, for instance, do the hereditary rights favour women (such as land rights)? Secondly, do women have access to third parties they can seek help from when there is a conflict in the family (women shelters)? Lastly, do women have a say in how to spend the family funds, or use the family resources (such as land) — this kind of information could be gathered through household surveys.

However, there is a silver lining too as Jessica Dias, a development practitioner living in the US, explains the phenomenon in these words, “Although gender inequality still exists in employment, women in the US have made great headway. Women comprise 46 per cent of the labour force. It is an established way of life for women to work. Many barriers have been broken and are visible especially in government jobs where women make up half of the employees, managerial jobs, women-owned businesses and teaching posts.”

The right to work is a fundamental right, recognised in several international legal instruments. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) deals with this very meticulously than any other instrument. Article 3 of the Covenant prescribes that State parties undertake to, ‘ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights’.

It underlines the need for a comprehensive system of protection to combat gender discrimination and to ensure equal opportunities and treatment between men and women in relation to their right to work by ensuring equal pay for work of equal value.

Priti Darooka, executive director of the The Programme on Women's Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (PWESCR), clarifies that all civil society and human and gender activists in different countries should press their governments to respect, protect and fulfil their obligations under the Covenant.

Current gender policies, if there are any, pursued by the governments should address the growing need of gender specific development paradigm. As Karl Marx famously remarked that it is vital to be economically self-sufficient in order to retain freedom of mind. This couldn’t be truer for women empowerment. If this world is to become more egalitarian and inclusive, the governments should use laws at their disposal to make it easier for women to search for and maintain employment.