What is Hindering Greater Empowerment of Women in Pakistan?

By: Mariyam Suleman

Pakistani women endure persistent gender inequalities, which is inseparably linked with care work and strict gender roles.

Ever looked around office boardrooms, parliament, the corporate sector, educational institutions or even hospitals in Pakistan and wondered why in most professions women are outnumbered by men?

While women account for half of the country’s population, very few of those of working age participate in the labour force.

Understanding what factors are hindering women’s greater empowerment is critical. ILO (International Labour Organization) statistics combined with World Bank surveys and conclusions drawn by sociological research find that women endure persistent gender inequalities, which is inseparably linked with servicing others (“care work”) and strict gender roles.

Hence, the main reason given by women of working age for being outside the labour force is not illiteracy, lack of appropriate training, disability or anything else. It is the traditional gender role of “primary caregiver” in the household that is expected of them. In the case of men, the reasons given are “education, sickness or disability.”

According to the ILO, on average, women in Pakistan spend at least five hours per day in domestic services, caregiving and helping others in household as compared to only 28 minutes spent by Pakistani men – which is barely nine percent of what women contribute throughout the day.

It is worse in rural parts of the country where women spend more hours having to carry water long distances from wells and lakes, and must divide their time between domestic chores and agricultural responsibilities.

According to World Bank data, only two out of every ten women are part of the labour force in Pakistan, the lowest ratio in South Asia. On the other hand, women are also more likely to permanently leave jobs or their education due to “family responsibilities” – which is primarily caregiving.

Women’s smaller labour-force participation also contributes to their disempowerment, poverty or complete dependency, not only because women tend to live longer than men but they often own far fewer resources.

Symptoms of Disempowerment

Alongside labour force participation, there are several other indicators that influence women’s empowerment. These include: access to and attainment of education, level of economic participation and economic freedom, participation in decisionmaking, and health issues.

In almost all these indicators, Pakistan has not fared very well. In fact, less than half of Pakistani adult women have ever been to school according to World Bank data, and only 24 percent are partaking in economic activities – both figures being the lowest in South Asia. Pakistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates (MMR) in the world (178 out of every 100,000 live births).

Six out of every ten women do not participate in their own decisions, which also include decisions regarding health, household, and purchases. Pakistan also has the widest gender gap in South Asia and stands at bottom of the list in the world in economic, political and educational opportunities and health facilities for women as per the Global Inequality Index.

This gap is further evidence of the patriarchy which exists all over Pakistan. It can also be seen in the form of men’s complete control over the household’s women, which leaves women without any economic or educational freedoms.

As in most of Pakistan, not only do women need to have permission from fathers, brothers or husbands when they seek jobs, pursue higher studies or choose learning a skill, but even when they need medical care, they must first get permission to visit the healthcare center and often must have an escort with them. On the other hand, they are made to conform to social norms about “appropriate behavior,” which are often enforced by male relatives.

As for women’s economic empowerment, in a survey carried out by the World Bank, men’s attitudes in different parts of the country vary. Those who express support for women’s work see it as a source to overcome their own financial stress.

But most of these men favor women taking on home-based work or jobs in education and the health sector because of perceived compatibility of these fields with women’s presumed caring inclination – making the work “traditionally acceptable,” as well as requiring less interaction with other men.

The survey also revealed that a very large number of men fear that the free mixing of sexes might lead to social problems in traditional societies, such as ours. It is unclear what they consider social problems, but for many, it is sexual harassment.

Studies show women are twice as likely to have left the labour market as men. When thinking about how women’s absence because of care work or traditional gender roles can affect the labour market, we need to understand if circumstances in and outside the house are the same for men and women.

According to the results of a Thomson Reuters Foundation 2018 poll, Pakistan is ranked as the sixth most dangerous country for women in the world when it comes to economic resources, discrimination in the workplace and risks women face from cultural, religious and traditional practices.

On the other hand, Pakistan ranks fifth most dangerous country in the world when it comes to non-sexual violence as domestic abuse, most of which is often committed by close family members. It ranks seventh when it comes to sexual violence and harassment outside the home.

One of the reasons why women face these abuses is the institutional gaps and barriers that compromise the safety of working women, as well as women at home. For their safety in both spaces, laws to protect them are crucial. It is equally important to invest in awareness and long-term behavioral change, especially in the form of early school-based interventions that engage men and boys in the need for equitable values for both genders.




Traditional Gender Roles

For centuries, gender roles in most of South Asia have socialized men as the main breadwinner and women as the primary caregiver. With the recent advancement in education and economies, women are seen contributing more than ever before. But even when they work hours equal to those of men and finances are equally distributed within the household, they still end up doing most of the chores.

Among those surveyed by the World Bank, several of the men in Pakistan insisted that they cannot share the burden of household chores as this would entail a loss of respect and their dignity among friends and other family members because it would challenge their gender roles in the household.

Hence, the centuries-old thinking that kitchen duties, cleaning and childcare belong to women is still around. Combined conclusions from sociological research reveal that, in most societies, women – not men – are judged negatively for undone housework.

This is an example of how social mores, strict gender roles and expectations (whether or not an individual believes them) influence behavior. According to research, gender expectations about housework have been among the slowest to change, not only in Pakistan but throughout the world.

Making Things Easier for Women

Though childcare, healthcare, and domestic work have sustained the well-being of individuals for centuries, they are still unrecognized and undervalued tasks, and considered part of private family responsibility for women without remuneration in exchange.

Not only has this affected women’s personal well-being over time throughout Pakistan, denying them equal economic opportunities, freedoms and empowerment, but as a society it has also convinced us to think traditionally as separating economic and non-economic work – this hardly reminds us of the contribution that care work makes to countries’ economies.

According to the ILO, the value of unpaid care work is 7.4 percent of Pakistan’s GDP. Therefore, 6.8 percent of GDP is contributed by women. In contrast, most women prefer to be in paid employment instead of having to do domestic chores and unpaid care work.

Even if chores are shared equally among men and women, the presence of young children in households can be another barrier for women’s economic empowerment. Throughout the world, per the ILO in 2018, less than half of the mothers of children up to the age of five are part of the workforce as compared to nine out of every ten fathers of children of same age group.

In Pakistan, for the first time the concern of working mothers about childcare came forward this year. Not because it was not an issue ever before but because one of the woman members of the Balochistan Assembly, Mahjabeen Shiran, was asked to leave the assembly with her sick child during a session. After the incident, she started an online campaign for childcare centers in work places. The campaign soon became one of the top trends on social media in Pakistan.

It is unsure whether such care centers will really be developed in every workplace after the incident in the Balcohistan Assembly but, if they are, not only will it open doors for thousands of mothers longing to contribute financially to their families and their own personal well-being, but it will also create more economic opportunities for women and men in these care centers.

Having care work currently outside the productive sphere means we are missing an opportunity to improve women’s access to the labour market. The best way to empower both women and men is to embrace policies that provide childcare facilities (including early childhood care), parental leave, and care centers for the elderly. To do this, women need to raise their voice as they did this year during “Women March” and continue challenging the traditional paradigm that encourages women to stay home!

Mariyam Suleman

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