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Our gaping gender disparities

By: Syed Mohammad Ali

The Malala incident provided stark illustration of the distorted mindset, which seeks to supress half the population in our country, while the public outrage against the incident demonstrates the prevailing desire to offer women and girls in Pakistan a better future.

The causes of gender disparities in our country are, however, multidimensional and cannot be attributed to a sudden surge in extremist threats alone. The current situation is the result of generations of neglect and patriarchal norms, which pervade most spheres of public and private life across Pakistan.

Unesco has just estimated that an estimated 62 per cent of Pakistani girls, between the ages of seven and 15, have never gone to school. This ratio is much worse compared with the 30 per cent estimate for India and nine per cent for Bangladesh. Education is, of course, not the only problem when it comes to gender-related disparities in our country. Pakistan now occupies the last spot amongst countries of the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), based on economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.

We cannot blame the gender disparities in our country on religion or poverty, considering that the status of women is much better in a poorer Muslim country like Bangladesh, which was ranked 86th on the same index.

At the same time, however, entities like the WEF are themselves not without fault, since they aim to propagate an economic system, which is itself largely responsible for a range of gender inequalities plaguing most developing countries. For instance, it is pressure from international development agencies to curb public spending, which has led to privatisation of public services like health and education. The uneven nature of globalisation, accompanied by the coerced liberalisation of developing countries, also forces women to accept low-paying wages in the informal sector just to ensure household survival, while multinational corporations profit obscenely from these discriminatory wages.

However, our government and donor agencies seem equally oblivious to these broader inequities. Consider for instance the recent press release stressing how the ministries of finance and women’s development aim to make greater efforts to provide updated and timely data concerning women’s economic empowerment to international agencies in order to improve our international rankings, whereas donor agencies have reiterated their willingness to help relevant ministries identify means to increase national competitiveness, which simultaneously empower women.

Better (or even doctored) data collection cannot, however, solve existing problems on the ground. Also, the much-touted emphasis on donor-supported strategies, like use of micro-credit to turn women into empowered entrepreneurs, does not provide a very relevant solution in the Pakistani context at least, where it is still men who exert control over finances, even if accessed in the name of their womenfolk.

Women are already bearing the dual burden of household management and ensuring household survival. However, the problem is that their work is not adequately acknowledged, respected or remunerated.

Due to their vulnerable position in society, women in home-based cottage industries, are thus readily exploited by middlemen, who take advantage of their social immobility to pay them a fraction of the price their products are sold for. Women’s work in the agricultural sector is not duly compensated either and they are denied land-ownership, despite the Islamic laws of inheritance, since social pressure compels them to hand over their share of land to their brothers.

Instead of focusing on market-based solutions or becoming more data-obsessed, it is these underlying problems, which donors and our state institutions must pay more attention to, in order to help improve the socio-economic circumstances of women and ensure a better future for girls in Pakistan.

The Express Tribune