Pakistan makes uneven progress in the fight for gender equality

Female medical students pictured at a seminar on drug addiction at the Dost Foundation in Hyatabad, Peshawar, in June 2019. Today, in a major breakthrough for gender equality, half of all students in higher education in some parts of Pakistan are women. (Parachute Pictures/David Browne)

In Pakistan women don’t just have to contend with glass ceilings. They are hemmed-in by walls and barriers of every construction. Look at most international indicators across the social, educational and economic spectrum and Pakistan will be, statistically, struggling somewhere close to the bottom.

Yet, despite this, significant gains have recently been made in the fight for gender equality in this south Asian nation.

In Pakistan’s ultra-conservative north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), for example, in January this year, the local government hired its very first female ombudsperson with the aim of reducing harassment of women in the workplace. This appointment came six months before the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a new global labour standard on violence and harassment in the world of work.

“We have sent a notification to every government department, asking them to follow and display anti-harassment guidelines, to promptly report cases and warned them that failure to comply can result in fines of up to Rs100,000 (around US$670),” said KPK ombudsperson Rakhshanda Naz.

And in Pakistan’s July 2018 general elections there were more female candidates than in any previous election. For the first time, five transgender candidates contested the polls. Krishna Kumari Kohli became Pakistan’s first female senator from the Hindu Dalit community, while Tanzeela Qambrani became the first Pakistani of African descent (from the Sheedi community) elected to the Sindh Assembly.

In fact, more than any of the country’s other provincial lawmakers, the Sindh government produced a record number of progressive labour-related legislation, including the first-ever law in Pakistan to protect the rights of home-based workers (the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, 2018).

For leading women’s rights activist Fauzia Viqar, this all points to major progress. “If I look at my daughter’s generation, compared to my generation and my mother’s generation, I would have to say that the everyday condition of women has improved,” she says.

“It’s a complicated scenario but two things will be the accelerators of change. One is the economy: because of the cost of living most families need two earners. Now it’s a necessity, an economic necessity, that women go out to work. Once a woman starts to work, she is bound to increase in her autonomy and her agency,” says Viqar, who until recently headed the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women.

“Then there’s the internet and social media. This has definitely led to greater empowerment, knowledge and opportunity. Even women in remote areas can now also access information,” says Viqar.

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Legislative progress

Although advances in the area of gender equality has been “very slow from many perspectives, in terms of legislation in Pakistan we have done extraordinarily well. The political commitment is there,” believes Hadia Nusrat, a top Pakistani academic and gender expert working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“But monetisation has been extremely poor. Political will has to be backed by budgets with accountability,” says Nusrat, who spoke to Equal Times from Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where she was working on the 25th Anniversary Report of the UN Women’s Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which is scheduled for publication in March 2020.

This major gender equality initiative was launched in Beijing in 1995 with the aim of alleviating female poverty and improving women’s access to education, health care, political participation, protecting the girl child and promoting a full range of essential laws, legislation and human rights globally.

With a population of 220 million people, Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world. At independence in 1947 women’s literacy was around 25 per cent, where it hovered for several decades. Today it is close to 50 per cent.

According to World Bank data, the literacy rate of adult females (those aged 15 and above) increased year-on-year between 2005 and 2014, growing from 35.368 per cent in 2005 to 44.283 per cent in 2015.

In another significant indicator, there has also been a big improvement in maternal care. According to UNICEF statistics, maternal mortality (per 100,000 live births) has fallen from 431 in the year 1990 to 178 in 2015.

In education, too, there have been some impressive advances. For example, in the Punjab, Pakistan’s richest province, young women now make up 50 per cent of students at university and higher education colleges. However, less than 10 per cent of women with degrees and qualifications transition to the workforce.

“The notion that women’s primary responsibility is marriage and child-rearing makes the transition a problem,” explains Viqar. But on the plus side women are now employed in a broader spectrum of jobs. “More and more women are now working in the service sector and not just the so-called ‘noble’ professions like medicine and teaching. I think this is a real marker of progress,” she says.

Gender-based violence

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s women still have a long way to travel before they can enjoy full social and economic equity.

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According to the World Economic Forum and their 2018 Global Gender Gap Index, Pakistan was once again the second worst country in terms of gender equality.

The country still has a massive problem with gender-based violence, which takes place in the form of rape, forced marriage, child marriage, acid attacks and so-called ‘honour killings’. And, while growing awareness and sensitisation has led to an increase in reporting, the figures are still significantly under-reported.

In its latest annual report, titled State of Human Rights in 2018, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent watchdog, noted that its own monitoring data showed 845 incidents of sexual violence against women and 316 crimes in the name of honour perpetrated against both men and women. However, the HRCP stressed that it believed these to be “minimum figures”.

In its 2019 World Report, Human Rights Watch quotes Pakistani activists who say there are in fact 1,000 ‘honour killings’ every year. The impact of gender-based violence is immeasurable. “Domestic violence is the foundation of women’s disempowerment,” says Viqar. “Women give up on their dreams. It has a massive psychological impact.”

Educational opportunities also remain sharply differentiated on socio-economic and class lines. Labouring work – not education – is the reality for most females in this conservative society, where according to the World Bank, 31.3 per cent of the population live under the poverty line (of US$3.20 a day).

In Pakistan’s hitherto semi-autonomous tribal districts, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, nearly 80 per cent of girl children quit education at primary level and around half drop out at middle and high school levels.

HRCP research found that around 75 per cent of women and girls in Pakistan were involved in agricultural work in 2018. And the human rights body estimates that 60 per cent of this work, much of it conducted under the ubiquitous system of debt bondage, was effectively unpaid.

For Nusrat, the path to gender equality remains a bumpy one: “In certain areas progress has been much better than expected. There are women in parliament, women in discourse. There have been some remarkable achievements. But we are still lagging behind in health, in primary and secondary education. Women continue to be ghettoised. There are still social shackles, barriers, ceilings and walls against the advancement of women.”

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