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Implementing gender-based taxation

Dr Rakhshinda Perveen

The proposed tax break for certain groups of Pakistani women can emerge not only as one of the means of freedom from stigma and servitude for these women, but also allow sustenance to many women who are overworked and underpaid.

The empowerment of women has emerged as one of the cattiest slogans and mantra in academia and activism. Feminisation of poverty, agriculture etc and inclusion of women in the armed forces have occupied centre-stage in the empowerment hype.

Pro-women legislation, political participation and economic freedom have been repeatedly cited as the magic bullets for women empowerment. What exactly is women empowerment? What are the indicators of women empowerment? A wealth of literature is available and one can go on debating and deliberating but, to me, what matters most is: who are the women who benefit from such interventions?

Owing to the collective efforts of a relatively free media, rights activists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donors, gender-based violence has caught reasonable attention and new approaches to address centuries old crimes of dishonouring women through rape and other hazardous traditional practices are being adopted and applied. However, the focus remains on overt and easy to understand forms of abuses and injustices. Many complex faces of covert forms of violence and abuse against women remain unheard, unseen, unintelligible and thus hidden.

One such facet of gender discrimination and inequity is the taxation system of Pakistan. Gender-based taxation has yet to gain consensus here from economists and policy makers. According to the works of many internationally acclaimed researchers on gender-based taxation as a potential tax policy, it has been underscored that female labour supply is more elastic than that of men. Therefore, tax rates on labour income should be lower for women than for men. This argument is well known in academic literature, but it is not taken seriously as a policy proposal. In Pakistan, with a repressive and anti-poor taxation system, the discourse and debate on gender-based taxation has yet to command the attention of policy makers and tax experts.

The key challenge, therefore, is how to translate ideas about the economic empowerment of women into policy actions through a tax-break. An instant solution seems to be the donor-funded initiatives implemented by many NGOs in Pakistan and even in the ministries and provincial departments. The question that bothers me is: are all women and girls facing similar disadvantages? The answer is a definite ‘no’, regrettably not so obvious at times even to gender professionals in Pakistan. Women are not homogenous, and a significant proportion has to live as divorced – with no support from the ex-husband.

Without going into the genesis of the pathology that causes inability to look at indigenous problems with our own lens rather than relying on visions elsewhere, I can safely state that in my two decades of practical experience in the development sector of Pakistan, I have yet to witness a single valuable intellectual or service delivery product on the issue of divorced mothers and divorced women and those women who remain unmarried due to disability or dowry systems or any other social tradition. Though divorce is no longer an alien phenomenon in Pakistan, it is still seen as a hard to swallow reality and worth avoiding discussion if it is in favour of the divorced women.

There is absolute silence on the issue of divorced mothers. The agony and pain of this group accentuates with a rise in their educational qualification and salary earned. Society becomes more judgmental. Centuries old patriarchal traditions cannot be changed by the state alone but it can set guidelines and a direction for progress of Pakistani women and put policy reforms and institutional changes in motion.

In my pioneering research on the idea of a tax break for single women other than widows (as they are already exempted from property tax) in Pakistan, I found that the proposed tax break for certain groups of Pakistani women (divorced mothers, divorced, disabled and ‘never married’ women above the age of 40 years) can emerge not only as one of the means of freedom from the stigma and servitude for these women, but also allow sustenance to many women who are overworked and underpaid by diluting, if not dissolving, different layers of discrimination in a patriarchal society and culture.

One of the most frequent questions I faced while disseminating the idea was that why men belonging to this category should not be offered similar concessions. My answer has remained that ours is an unequal world where certain groups are always ‘more equal’ than others. Women live longer but not necessarily happier and healthier than men. They not only carry the greater biological burden of diseases but the burden of family honour, and many forms and shapes of social disadvantages that are honoured and endorsed by cultural values, lack of political will and silence. Thus a woman who is not married (by the age of 40) due to disability or any other cause, or a woman who is divorced, and that too with children, has lesser probability and options for claiming the rights to be respected socially within the household and in public life, or getting married and settling peacefully. Obviously, there are class variations but women from the middle class bear the major brunt.

Setting up of a special dowry fund or distributing alms from some income support programme for such women may appear to be brilliant solutions but taking intellectual and political risks may appear non-pragmatic to the ‘wizards’ who are the self-appointed custodians of rights-based approaches. The least that can be done to alleviate the pain of such women is to extend the similar exemption of property tax that is given to widows and realistic tax breaks on income. The time to do so is now when the budget for 2011-12 is in the making.

Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention For Ending All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Three principles outlined by CEDAW are particularly relevant to gender equality and have been articulated in most Asia-Pacific constitutions. These are the state’s obligation; the principle of equality and non-discrimination. The state’s obligation may be legally defined but also is a matter of political commitment and philosophy. According to a UNDP (2010) report, the “state should be an architect in eliminating gender discrimination, in law and legal practices rather than leaving it solely up to free market forces, for example, or the less predictable process of social change over time”.

I hope that all those legislators and politicians from the PPP, PML-Q, PML-N, ANP and MQM who, when interviewed for my book, endorsed the idea of this specific tax break for stigmatised but skilled women in Pakistan will ensure that these women get this relief as a right.

One expected criticism could be that the Excise and Taxation Department may face a conflict of interest. Their function is to increase revenue. Yes, but usually taxation systems knowingly and unknowingly both are taxing the poor while the mighty evade taxes. Further, the estimated number of such women will not be high enough to diminish the revenue generated by these departments. Such a concession may encourage employers to hire such women.

The writer is a civic entrepreneur and has recently authored a book, A Tax Break for Economic Freedom. She can reached at dr.r.perveen@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times

Date:5/4/2011

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