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The wrong end of the stick

April 14, 2013

Moniza Inam analysis the linkages between education and employment opportunities and rampant poverty among women.

The wife of a low-ranking government official, Najma has five children, whom she wishes to educate at a private school. She intends to take up a job to be able to afford school expenses. Yet, in spite of being a university graduate, she has been forbidden by her husband and in-laws from working on the grounds of social pressure, cultural practices and family honour.

A middle-aged widow, Naeema, has all her children married and settled overseas. She longs to keep herself busy through work, but her lack of formal education and experience prevents her from doing so.

Nabeela’s husband remarried as he wanted a male heir, though he has three daughters from Nabeela. As she was married at an early age, she couldn’t complete her Matric and circumstances now compel her to live together with her husband’s second wife.

It has been observed that such cases are unfortunately representative of over 48 per cent of women in Pakistan, who are denied formal education and the opportunity to acquire any meaningful work. This deprivation of education and accessibility to the public sphere is amongst the many effective tools at the disposal of patriarchy to subjugate women.

Much of our rural population is still organised around primitive feudal and tribal systems and the cultural norms and religious tenets only compound the problem of women’s right to education and their prerogative to work. Female illiteracy, unfortunately, prevails not only in rural areas, but urban areas are also affected and as statistics reveal, Pakistan lags behind in education and literacy within the South Asian region and gender gaps remain an issue of grave concern.

According to the Pakistan Economic Survery 2011-12 the overall literacy rate is 56pc, with men more educated at 69pc in contrast to women who stand at 45pc. Amongst many significant raisons d'être for this dismal reality is the widespread and pervasive poverty which hinders accessibility to education which manifests as gender inequality and exclusion.

This phenomenon is better explained by Gul Unal, a Turkish researcher working at the UN Women Policy Division in New York: “Gaps in primary education are closing in most countries globally, except for some South Asian countries. In Pakistan, while 93pc of all boys are enrolled in primary school, only 59pc of girls are enrolled.

“There are several reasons for these gender gaps in education and the principal one is that when families have limited resources to send all of their kids to school, they make a choice based on whose future market value would be higher, in the absence of social security for their old age.”

Dr Asad Sayeed, a prominent economist, states, “The modern definition of poverty not only includes access to resources and assets but it also includes women’s right to healthy and successful life and free choices. But in our country both these factors are still a distant dream because women neither have access to resources and assets, and society as a whole exerts its influence in the form of religious, societal and cultural prejudices and pressures.

“Women’s access to income-generating activities is very restricted and they don’t get their share in inheritance and don’t own assets in their names. This weakens their financial position, which, in turn, makes them vulnerable and all that creates disparity in the gender relationships,” he adds.

Another critical factor, which aggravates the problem, is the prevailing conformist and patriarchal mindset which perceives men and women as entirely two distinct ‘creatures’, which consequently denies selfhood to women. Our established culture places emphasis on women’s reproductive capacities, consequently denying her an opportunity for self-development and realising her own understanding of ‘self’. This denial prevents women from being treated as equal beings, which results in exclusion from education.

Formal employment accessibility for women remains distressing, as according to the Economic Survey 2011-12 only 21pc women are part of the formal workforce. Another alarming problem is the fact that most of these women work in the informal sector, as home-based workers, domestic help or in family-owned farms and they are conveniently excluded from official statistics. Their labour remains unaccounted for and unpaid, not even worth mentioning in the official data.

Another important factor which prevents women from gaining employment and formal education is the sheer weight of ‘care labour’ which is incurred upon women. In many cases, in spite of receiving formal education, women are unable to realise their full potential due to disproportionate burden of housework upon their shoulders.

Even when women gain formal employment, they end up being the primary providers at home, and they work ‘double shift’, apart from their paid employment, for which they do not receive any remuneration.

Despite facing the above-mentioned obstacles to join the job market, they are paid less wages compared to their male counterparts, often without any job security or perks. This disparity between males and females can range anywhere between 50 to 96pc depending on the country, according to the International Labour Organisation.

“There is an urgent need to take certain measures to promote women employment,” as Shubha Chacko, director, Aneka, a Bangalore-based NGO that works on gender and health issues with working-class collectives, elaborates, “since women are concentrated in agriculture and small enterprises the government should provide them with landownership; in order to strengthen their enterprises it requires accessibility to credit and women-friendly banking, technology and skill training to improve productivity.”

To conclude the long debate, it can be said that changing the patriarchal mindset is the foremost priority of the governments and societies. There is a need to acknowledge that women are economic agents and as such public policies should recognise them as individual rights-holders and not just as a member of a family, household or group. Endorsing this position Zubeida Mustafa, a seasoned journalist and columnist states that women should become a part of the mainstream where they can play their roles more effectively.

“They should not confine themselves to the domesticated roles and should understand that there is a life beyond these traditional roles as professional working women. Parents and families should also invest in their education and give them confidence to face the world on their own. These small measures will go a long way and help women to break the shackles of deprivation and poverty,” she adds.