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Gender disparity in human development

By: Shakil Ahmad

Notwithstanding the fact that feudalism and the mindset that educated urbanised men keep appearing display in opposing all forms of discrimination against women, the lives of girls and women in Pakistan have changed dramatically over the past quarter century. The pace of change has been astonishing in some areas, but in others progress toward gender equality has been limited.

Our parliamentarians, who grace the National Assembly and Senate, have little realisation that gender equality is a core development objective in its own right. It is also smart economics. Greater gender equality can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation and make institutions more representative. The National Assembly in its meeting held on October 18, 2011, again deferred passage of an important piece of legislation titled Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill on the ground that some members had not been provided copies of the amendment. The Bill aims to eliminate all anti-women practices such as marriage with the Holy Quran, forced marriages to settle disputes and depriving women from inheriting property. The Assembly has now been prorogued conveniently managing postponement of the proposed legislation.

President Zardari’s government had not initiated the legislation in the first place. Its indifference to the passage of the legislation may have rested on the ground that its electoral prospects, especially in rural Sindh, would be hurt where such a legislation were to become law. In the nearly four years that it has been in power, the government has failed to identify priority areas and the policy for going forward. The areas that immediately come to mind are: (i) reducing excess female mortality and closing education gaps where they remain; (ii) improving access to economic opportunities for women; (iii) increasing women’s voice in the household and in society; and (iv) limiting the reproduction of gender inequality across generations. Of the four areas, education and health deserved the government’s utmost priority with commitment of resources and political will. Investment in health and education shape the ability of men and women to reach their full potential in society. The right mix of such investments allows people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Systematic differences in investments between males and females, independent of their underlying causes, adversely affect individual outcomes in childhood and adulthood and those of the next generation. Left uncorrected, these differences translate into large costs for societies. Pakistan has started paying the large costs, as poverty traps Pakistani women in a web of dependency and subordination due to their low social, economic and political status in society. In order to change women’s position and societal view of their inferiority, it was expected that the present government will bring about structural changes in the social and economic order that shape our social world. This expectation remains unrealised. Notwithstanding the fact that ceremonial positions are held by women, they are totally absent from state structures and decision-making bodies that could introduce such structural changes. No meaningful progress can be made by the country in the absence of women’s involvement in the development of policies and programmes that would lead to a shift in gender relations in the society.

Presently, in order to maintain the status quo, institutionalised violence against women at the family and community level is used as a mechanism to ensure their compliance with gender norms. This serves to prevent any attempt leading to the subversion of the male order. Ironically, at the same time, a great deal of rhetorical attention has been paid to gender issues at the national level. Pakistan has made several commitments at national and international forums to ensure gender equality at home. However, there is a wide gap between commitment and implementation. The determination of the government to translate its commitment of gender equality into concrete reality is a major challenge faced by women in Pakistan.

It is now universally recognised that health and education investments in women pay large dividends. In their roles as mothers, educated women pass on the benefits of higher education to their children. Children born to educated mothers are less likely to die in infancy and more likely to have higher birth weights and be immunised. Evidence from many developing countries suggests that some of the pathways linking maternal education to child health include higher use of prenatal care and lower smoking rates. According to World Bank data, in Pakistan, even a single year of maternal education leads to children studying an additional hour at home and to higher test scores. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Cabinet colleagues must convince the President to approve a set of policy measures that include:

– Eliminating gender disadvantage in education.

– Closing differences in access to economic opportunities.

– Eliminating all forms of discrimination against women.

The writer is a retired secretary of the Government of Pakistan. He belongs to the former Civil Service of Pakistan.
Source: The Nation

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