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Female labour force participation in Pakistan

By: Haroon Mustafa Janjua

Female labour participation has progressively been acquiring focus among policy strategists, sociologists, feminists and economists. Although considerable leaps and strides can be observed, raising the levels of women’s participation in the labour market, there have been several concerns and challenges that yet remain to be addressed and overcome. Women’s rights have received scarce attention so far, in Pakistani society, a major challenge that has worked as a major regressive catalyst, holding back their potential value to be realised both effectively and equitably.

It is a generally accepted reality that women suffer from several forms of discrimination and adversities in everyday life, ranging from household chores to institutionalised socio-cultural diminution in the broader public sphere. That a woman constitutes a vital part of the socio-economic fabric, which holds together fundamental institutions, be it a family or a community, together, yet that contribution with all its efforts and sacrifices is rarely valued at the same level that a man’s work is generally appreciated. This is mostly because of the nature of opportunities available for women in the labour market. Women are disproportionately likely to be poor, under-educated, employed in low-wage or unpaid work and in the informal sector, and subject to dismissal for getting married or during childbearing states.

Increased female participation in the labour market has been the key impetus boosting growth of the developed economic powers of the world. Since 1900, the female labour force participation (FLFP) rate has grown from a paltry four percent to over 70 percent in 2000, as far as the developed economies are concerned. However, women in Pakistan are faced with considerable, persistent gender gaps at work, according to a report by various think tanks, over gender and labour issues, and it calls for bold, effective and innovative measures to level the playing field and unleash women’s economic potential, allowing for empowerment by employment.

Women’s position in various informal sectors is especially unsettling, from the perspective of empowerment-by-employment — there are several areas, which have no provisions for appropriate legal recourse, compensation regulation, amenable working conditions and allowing them to realise their actual value potential. It is a stark picture however in many industries, where female workers are systematically denied their rights of regular pay and regular working hours, pay at par with work effort across genders, permanent contracts, occupational safety and non-hazardous work environments, and freedom of association. Egregious abuses, including sexual violence, harassment and forced pregnancy tests, are all too common in the informal sector where there is no regulatory control in place.

The increasing role of women in the labour market has helped them improve their socio-economic status, including allowing them to have control over earnings and resources, and influence in family-planning decisions. Studies authorised by the UN have also confirmed that women are more likely to derive satisfaction from their participation in employment and through earning capabilities, reducing preferences for a child from a specific gender — when working mothers are financially sound, their daughters also end up receiving better education and that helps in transforming first the family’s and then society’s attitudes towards the value of children regardless of their gender. This process helps in enhancing the efficacy of family planning as well.

In Pakistan, however, there is no empirical evidence to support or examine these phenomena due to a lack of attention and research interest in this issue. Despite experiencing high economic growth and structural transformations, primarily enhanced role of the services sector, lowering fertility rates and reducing gender inequality gaps, the country’s FLFP rate has not increased at a reasonable pace compared to neighbouring developing economies. Although FLFP has increased significantly, it is important to note that two thirds of this increase can be attributed to a rise in the number of unpaid household helpers, whereas waged employment has not increased at a significant rate.

Despite spells of high growth and structural transformation, Pakistan still has the lowest FLFP rate compared to developed and other South Asian economies. One good measure can be the male to female ratio for labour market participation and here are the numbers for 2012, from a World Bank Study. Pakistan has a ratio of 29, while India 36, Bangladesh 68, Sri Lanka 46, Bhutan 86 and Afghanistan 20.

In Pakistan the factors affecting FLFP are related to women’s socio-economic status, husband’s level of education and observance of purdah (segregation). These are indicative traits of a patriarchal society and hence the significantly influence women’s participation in the labour force market. This has a significant relationship with not only changing family equations and structures, now moving towards a nuclear family and marrying age, but the size of the labour force also changes gradually, depending upon several factors that create an environment conducive for women to participate in the work force. In order to understand these factors one has to study the changing patterns of the employment of both men and women in our formal and informal economies. A comparison of male-female participation as such shall give crucial insights that can ultimately help in overcoming challenges and resolving the issues.

Actions should be planned and carried out for reforms and also for levelling the playing field for equality at work. Proactive private-sector leadership and innovation can encourage women’s participation and success in all walks of work, for example by establishing company policies and practices that relieve constraints on women’s time, by providing appropriate maternity leaves and child bearing, encourage men’s role in caring responsibilities, tackle discrimination in the workplace, and help women gain access to productive inputs.

Daily Times