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Leading in gender inequality

By: Dr Farzana Bari

Pakistan is ranked at the 141th position in the Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR), 2014, the second lowest spot on a list of 142 countries. The report, produced by the World Economic Forum, assesses the magnitude of gender disparities in the four areas of health, education, economy and politics. Researchers and academicians may have reservations over the methodology used in conducting such an assessment, thinking of them as flawed. Nevertheless, the bottom position held by Pakistan in the world community certainly resonates with the ground realities of women in the country.

The status of women in any society is linked to the overall socio-cultural, economic and political development of the country. Pakistan is faced with multiple social, economic and political crises. Crushing poverty, high unemployment, extremism, religious bigotry, sectarian conflicts and the breakdown of rule of law affect every citizen. However, the majority of women, especially those belonging to the working class and peasantry, are hit harder and suffer the most from societal conflicts and the erosion of the state because of their class and gender. The stark gender disparities in all spheres of life in Pakistan are the result of gender role ideology and the low investment in women’s human capital by the family and the state.

Women are the poorest of the poor. They lack access to the fundamental rights of education, health, employment, protection from violence and human dignity. Only 18 percent of women have reached secondary and higher education (UN Human Development Report, 2013). According to the World Development Report of the World Bank, 28 percent of women hold jobs in the formal sector of the economy. Some 70 percent of the labour force working in the informal economy, which is three times bigger than the formal economy, consists of women. The health status of women is extremely poor with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. As many as 250 women die every 100,000 live births. Every ninth woman in the country is at risk of getting breast cancer. Women’s voices are missing in policy making as they are hardly present in a decision-making position within community structures and also in public institutions. Out of 21 percent women in parliament, 17 percent have come indirectly on the reserved seats and not a single woman has the status of full minister in the cabinet.

Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous places for women to live. The prevalence rate and the gruesome nature of crimes committed against women is nerve wracking. Women are frequently killed in the name of honour, sold and exchanged as commodities in marriages and to settle disputes amongst men. They can be killed for giving birth to female children, even for singing and dancing. Incidents of rape, gang rape, kidnapping, trafficking, acid throwing, sexual harassment, cutting off hair and chopping off facial features to punish and humiliate them are frequently reported in the print and national media.

There are two key reasons behind why the country is a most dangerous place for women: a) the existence of a legal basis to commit violence against women in legislation such as the Hadood Ordinace, Qisas and Diyat law, law of evidence and honour killing law that makes honour killing a compoundable offence, and (b) the culture of impunity in cases of violence against women. The conviction rate in gender-based crimes is negligible. Justice is even denied in the most high profile cases of violence such as in the case of Mukhtaran Mai and the Kohistan video. This clearly signals the state’s unwillingness to protect women from the oppression of private patriarchy.

The lack of the state’s willingness to redress gender disparities is discernible from the discriminatory legislation that continues to be on the statute book. Pakistan is signatory to several human rights conventions and covenants including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that obligates state parties to bring domestic law into line with international human rights standards. Pakistan’s legal framework continues to treat women as second-class citizens.

Apart from the depressing ranking of Pakistan in the GGG report, the most striking feature in this report, for me, was to spot Rwanda at the seventh position on this list. It is a country riddled with ethnic conflict, a genocide and civil war in which an estimated 800,000 people belonging to the Tutsi and Hutu tribes were killed in 1994. The social and economic fabric of this society was in complete shambles. And yet the country climbed to the seventh position in the GGG index in just one decade. It has 56 percent women in parliament, the highest in the world.

There is a lot to be learnt from the experience of Rwanda. The most important underlying factor in making Rwanda a land of gender equality is the state’s commitment to gender equality and the recognition of women as key players in nation and state building. In addition to granting women legal equality, institutional targeting of women and gender accountability of state institutions helped Rwanda bridge the gender gap in such a short period of time.

If we wish to be counted as a civilised nation, we need to treat our women as equals. The will of the state to remove disparities is the most critical. However, it should be clear that no state can achieve the goal of gender equality without removing the material and structural basis of gender disparities. In a class context, demanding gender equality means equality in sharing miseries, poverty, unemployment and the disadvantages of men. Thus, issues of gender equality must be linked with social justice in society. The fight for gender justice must be linked to social movements fighting for class justice.

The writer is a human rights activist and director of Gender Studies, QAU. She can be reached at and on twitter at@ @drfarzanabari

Daily Times