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A quiet revolution by women in Pakistan

The term ‘a quiet revolution’ sounds like an oxymoron, since revolutions normally produce a lot of noise. But when something entirely unexpected happens that, too, can be called a revolutionary event even if it is not noisy. That is precisely what women in Pakistan are experiencing. A significant number of them are leaving their homes and entering the workforce. The numbers involved are large enough to make a difference not only to the women’s overall welfare, but it will profoundly affect the way Pakistani society will function, the way its economy will run and the manner in which its political order will evolve. This change is coming about as a result of development in three major areas: education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Let us begin with education. There is a widespread belief that women are faring poorly in receiving education. That impression is correct to some extent. The overall rate of literacy for women is low; much less than that for men which is also not very high. Although the Government of Pakistan is a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the country is far from achieving them. Attaining universal literacy for both boys and girls by the year 2015 was one of the MDGs. With literacy rates standing at 70 per cent for boys and only 45 per cent for girls in 2010, Pakistan will miss these goals by a vast margin.

However, when speaking of a revolution, the reference is to the growth rate in women’s enrolments in institutions of higher learning. Here, the recent trends are extraordinary — in fact revolutionary. It is interesting and puzzling that some of the numbers used here to make this point have not appeared in the country’s discourse about economic and social issues. Over the last 17 years, from 1993 to 2010, the number of girls enrolled in primary education has increased from 3.7 million to 8.3 million. This implies a growth rate of 6.7 per cent a year, about two and half times the rate of increase in the number of girls entering the primary school-going cohort. However, even with this impressive rate of increase, it is worrying that girls still account for less than one half — the proportion was 44.3 per cent in 2010 — of the total number of children in school.

It is in higher education that girls have made a most spectacular advance. The numbers of girls attending what are described as ‘professional colleges’ has increased in the same 17-year period, at a rate of eight per cent per annum. In 1993, there were only 100,400 girls attending these institutions. Their number increased to more than 261,000 in 2010. There are now more girls in these institutions than boys. Their proportion in the total population of these colleges has increased from 36 per cent to 57 per cent in this period.

It is attendance in the universities, though where the real revolution has occurred. There were less than 15,000 girls in these institutions in 1993; their number increased to 436,000 in 2010. The proportion of girls is approaching the 50 per cent mark with the rate of growth in their numbers an impressive 28 per cent a year. While a very large number of girls drop out between the primary stage and the stage of professional and university education, the numbers completing higher education is now much greater. Three quarter of a million girls are now leaving the institutions of higher learning every year.

In education, it is the numbers that make a revolution. Given the rate of increase in the number of girls attending these institutions, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that by 2015 a million girls will be ready every year to enter the modern sectors of the economy. That has already begun to happen and here the statistics on participation in the workforce don’t tell the complete story. Official statistics still indicate very low levels of women’s participation in the workforce. According to the official data, only 16 per cent of women were working compared to 50 per cent of men. The rate of women’s participation in the workforce is higher in the countryside than in urban areas — 19 per cent as against eight per cent. But these statistics don’t paint the real picture. A lot of the work that women do, either in the households or in the work place, does not get recorded. This is not only the case for developing countries. The same happens in more developed economies that keep a better record of what people do for living. In Pakistan, for instance, women are very actively engaged in the livestock sector but that goes mostly unnoticed in official accounting.

There are a number of sectors in modern areas of the economy where women now make up a significant part of the workforce. These include the traditional areas where educated women have been active for decades. These include teaching and medicine. However, more recently, as the number of women with high levels of skills increased, they have become players in sectors such as banking, communications, law and politics. Women also now makeup a significant proportion of the workforce in companies engaged in IT work. Some IT experts have estimated that in their sector, there are tens of thousands of women working in what they call ‘cottage businesses’. These are women with good computer skills, who are working from their homes undertaking small contractual work for members of their families or their friends who are living and working abroad. Some estimates suggest that more than a billion dollars worth of work gets done in these informal establishments. These are, by large, one-person shops that receive payments through informal transactions. However, it is the entry of women in the entrepreneurial field where the real revolution is occurring. I will take up that subject in this space next week.

Express Tribune