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Despite progress, gender disparity persists

Karachi: While the importance of gender equality is well recognised globally, gender equality and equitable division of resources and opportunities among men and women remain elusive in Pakistan. Inequalities persist despite considerable work undertaken in different sectors, including health and education.

These were the thoughts of experts gathered at the second annual conference on gender equality organised on Tuesday by the Aga Khan University’s (AKU) Working Group for Women.

Pakistan ranks as the world’s second-worst country in terms of division of resources and opportunities between male and female populations, according to The Global Gender Gap Report 2013 published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with faculty at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. The study assessed 136 countries, representing more than 93 percent of the world’s population.

“The political positioning and the agendas of feminism and the autonomous women’s movements have been systematically subsumed and relegated to the margins by the blatant ‘misuse’ of the concept of gender, a concept that ironically sought to enrich an understanding of patriarchy and sharpen the politics of the movement,” said Nighat Said Khan, the executive director at Applied Socioeconomic Research (ASR) Resource Centre, Pakistan.

Highlighting the importance of education to gender equality, Jyotsna Jha Ananthamurthy, the director of Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) India, said: “Gender equality in education also has the potential to be a means to larger changes and social transformation; enhanced empowerment of women and assertion of rights; greater political participation; higher participation in economic opportunities; increase in just and fair practices leading to a more gender responsive and cohesive society.”

AKU has been at the forefront of promoting gender equality and has a student body with over 60 percent women.

Further elaborating on the vision of AKU’s Working Group for Women, Dr Nargis Asad said the group was committed to promoting a supportive environment to ensure progressive social change by creating awareness and enabling women to develop optimum potential for an improved quality of life. “This can be achieved by creating awareness, conducting research, developing linkages with other organisations, promoting a supportive environment and contributing to policy reforms.”

The Working Group for Women was formed in 1994 providing a platform for understanding gender and promoting equal rights for women.

“Gender disparity in education can be overcome by simple measures like constructing separate toilets for boys and girls and posting female teachers at schools situated near their residences,” said Dr Kausar Waqar, an education researcher, presenting a case study for a school in Quetta where girls were encouraged to take interest in science through a poster competition and science fairs. “The number for girls opting for science increased drastically. Through these low-cost initiatives, girls began to understand science in a better way.”

She presented another case study of a school in Sukkur, where teachers were encouraged to draw posters and enact plays.

“Their drawings were heart wrenching,” she said. One of them drew a woman setting out for work, surrounded by images of eyes. In her poetry, she complained to God why was the world made only for men, and everywhere she walked leering men followed her.”

In another poster, Waqar said, a teacher drew a woman’s face. Half of her face was burnt with acid and in a quote box she wrote: “I wish I too had studied and knew how to fight for myself.”

The researcher explained that such experiments were a huge boost to their self confidence. “When they heard each other’s stories they realised they had come a long way.”

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