IT must have been irksome for the women’s development ministry to be presented with figures, compiled by an international organisation, indicating that little is being done to bridge the yawning gender gap that exists in the country. Nevertheless, reminders such as the one contained in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report for 2007 are essential if government departments dealing with women’s issues are to be pushed into doing more to create parity between the sexes. As the report indicates, Pakistan is way behind many countries in a number of areas relating to gender parity. It has an overall gender gap ranking of 126 out of 128 countries (the statistic for 2006 was marginally better at 112 out of 115), and is also positioned at 126 with regard to economic participation and opportunity. Paradoxically, Pakistan is ranked at 43rd position in women’s political empowerment despite the perennial problem of women not being allowed to vote or contest in conservative areas but thanks to the substantial number of parliamentary seats reserved for women. However, it continues to do pitifully in the areas of education (123) and health (121), which are also fundamental to measuring the gender gap.
The basic reason behind such disgraceful figures is rooted in centuries-old patriarchal attitudes that view women as lesser beings. This is not only true for Pakistan and much of South Asia, but also for many parts of the world which have yet to achieve the equality of sexes seen in the West. The difference is that where many other countries with large gender gaps are attempting to improve their standing, Pakistan’s efforts are insignificant. Change is slow. The state, which should have accorded priority to closing the gender gap, has, in fact, been instrumental in the regression of women. This was amply in evidence in earlier legislative measures such as the Hudood Ordinances. Never has its apathy been more apparent than in its failure to prevent militants from shutting down girls’ schools in the north or to enforce the right of franchise for women.
However, civil society, the intelligentsia and the various groups working for women’s emancipation are also to blame for their inability to mobilise public opinion. There are only a handful of groups, it seems, that are genuinely worried by the huge difference that exists between literacy rates for men and women or the fact that the girl child is viewed as an economic liability and treated as such with preference being given to her male siblings in even basic matters such as diet and medical care. They can make a difference if they find the right strategy (and, more importantly, the will) by working together for a common goal. The idea should be to create public awareness among women at the grassroots level, thereby increasing the pressure on the government to take proactive steps towards a more egalitarian set-up. This will also conscientise them and change their mindset thus enabling them to resist obscurantism.