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Women to Pakistan’s rescue

By: Shahid Javed Burki

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

Often, it is not realised by those who study Pakistan that the women in the country may be in a position to come to its rescue. Even without any assistance by the state, they will be contributing more than a full percentage point a year to the rate of economic growth in about five years. They have made some extraordinary progress in the last decade. Female literacy has improved, albeit from a low base. Women are doing particularly well in institutions of higher learning.

There are now more female than male students in colleges and universities. By 2015, a million well-educated and trained women will be ready to join the workforce. A number of these will get married and start families. But many will also take up jobs in modern sectors of the economy. Even many of those who are not formally in the workforce will be using their time productively, adding to family income by the part-time application of skills they have acquired. Also well-educated mothers are good in bringing up children.

Women now have a significant presence in the national and provincial legislatures. This is one area where General (retd) President Pervez Musharraf should be given full credit. It was as a result of the changes he made in the political order that women were able to increase their number in the legislatures. Women have entered the legislatures not only by being elected to reserved seats but many have won elections from open constituencies. Pakistan is one of the very few countries to have a woman as the speaker of the National Assembly.

In a conversation a couple of months ago, with Dr Fehmida Mirza, she proudly pointed out to me her successful initiatives. She has organised a ‘women’s caucus’ in the National Assembly that includes legislators from all political parties. “They have been able to work together, unmindful of the fact that they come from different political organisations”, she said. They have introduced a number of bills aimed at improving women’s welfare.

Women are also occupying leadership positions in non-governmental organisations, especially those dealing with social issues. Combining this work, with what they have begun to do in politics, has made it possible for women to address some of the problems they face in the country. In addition, women have become entrepreneurs in many businesses.

What is impressive about the remarkable progress made by women is that it has resulted mostly from their own initiatives. Women are doing well in education, in large part because several female entrepreneurs established educational institutions which could be conveniently attended by girls with some comfort. Some of the largest school systems in the country, such as the Beaconhouse Schools, City Schools and Grammar Schools are products of women’s entrepreneurship and the business and pedagogical models for these schools were conceived by them.

They provided the initial funding and are also being managed by women. Not only have women worked hard to improve the quality of education girls receive. It is women who are now also at the forefront of the fight against extremists who are dead set against female education. A brave teenager, Malala Yousafzai from Swat, has become the symbol of the struggle being waged by women in a country that is increasingly moving towards an extremist interpretation of Islam. The defiant campaign launched by almost cost her her life. Having survived the attack, she will be a beacon of hope for the Pakistani women.

Pakistan, although headed in that direction, is different in many ways from conservative Islamic societies. Saudi Arabia is a country many Pakistani citizens admire and would like to follow, in terms of its professed moral rectitude. However, it remains hostile towards women exercising their rights. It has failed to accommodate the very women in the work place that the state has paid to educate in foreign universities. There are 17,000 Saudi women studying in American colleges and universities. According to a report, “Saud Arabia has sharply reduced female illiteracy, virtually eliminating it among women ages 15 to 24.” But educated women, even those with foreign degrees are unemployed. “Unemployment among Saudi women who want to work is 34 per cent — almost five times as great as the seven per cent rate for men.”

Pakistani women have better opportunities compared to those in such conservative societies as Saudi Arabia. They are readily able to find jobs. They have also been able to become successful entrepreneurs. Well-educated women don’t come up against the brick wall that others face in several Muslim countries of the Middle East. Pakistani women are doing well in the work place and in the business world. They have established both formal as well as informal firms, in sectors such as education, communication, fashion and microfinance.

The contribution that women have already begun to make to the economy, and are likely to make even more significantly, applies mostly to the urban areas. In the above referred conversation with Dr Fehmida Mirza, she emphasised that women remain economically and socially distressed in the poorer districts of the country.

She used Badin, her district in southern Sindh, as an example of how much work women do both inside and outside their homes but in spite of that their economic situation remains poor. Women are advancing but still have a long way to go. Once they achieve their full potential, they will be able to lend a helping hand to rescue Pakistan from its current economic travails.

The Express Tribune