If Pakistan wants to progress, it must start by treating its women better
One hundred and eight years is a very long time. It is, however, the time that will be required if women are to be equal to men. According to the Gender Parity Index and a report issued by the World Economic Forum, the rate of the current progress in achieving gender parity means that most women alive today will never see a world where men and women are equal.
Unsurprisingly, the wait in Pakistan will be even longer. According to the index, Pakistan ranks 146 out of the 147 countries listed in the survey. The details in the statistics are damning, an enumeration of all the ways in which the country is failing half its population. Pakistan ranks among the worst countries for women’s literacy, women’s participation in the workforce, and women holding political office. There are few legal mechanisms to protect women from discrimination and harassment at the workplace, even as there is no law to mandate equal pay for men and women. Unsurprisingly, most women do not participate in the workforce and have significant concerns about their safety if they do venture beyond the bounds of home and hearth.
It is not just women’s work that lacks priority for Pakistan, it is their health too. Several die during childbirth, with almost half of women not having access to trained personnel during childbirth. Even while there is a law that provides for health care access, that access is rarely available, resulting in inordinately high numbers of early deaths. It’s not surprising then that Pakistani women’s health and the survival rate is among the three worst in the world.
The statistics, taken together, only highlight one thing: life for Pakistani women — in the country in which they are born and reside — is brutish, and short. At every turn, they face discrimination and a larger social message that they are unimportant and that their conditions do not matter. When laws are passed to improve these conditions, they are rarely enforced — proof that even while the political elite may want to instigate change, local customs and prevalent views combined to ensure that men retain their dominance over the women.
Pakistan is not just failing to move ahead when it comes to gender parity and women’s empowerment, it is actually moving backward.
It is difficult not to be disappointed at this state of things. To add to the miserable prognosis, there is the fact that things were not so bad 12 years ago. In addition to providing statistics from this year, the index also provides comparative data from 2006 — the last time the data was compiled. In nearly every category, from political participation to economic empowerment, health and survival, and educational attainment, Pakistani women were doing better then than they are now. Pakistan is not just failing to move ahead when it comes to gender parity and women’s empowerment, it is actually moving backward.
The consequences can be seen in this year’s statistics on violence against women. In recent events related to the United Nations’ Sixteen Days of Activism on women’s issues that took place in December, many community leaders pointed out that rates of violence have been increasing despite the passage of laws to reduce the scourge of violence.
At one event, the Chancellor of Karachi University, notably frustrated by the lack of progress, said that “primitive culture and tribal customs” were the reason why women faced so much violence. In his view, these factors contributed to creating a culture where women cannot speak out about what they are facing behind the closed doors of their homes, or the possibilities of getting justice against the perpetrators. The former Inspector General of Sindh Police expressed the same frustration, noting that a large percentage of honor killings were carried out by family members, with fathers, brothers, and cousins being the chief culprits in these deaths.
As the world moves forward, Pakistani women are being left out of any notion of real progress. While women in other countries fight to become CEOs and Senators, Pakistani women must worry about whether it is possible to walk down the street without being harassed or facing the risk of sexual violence. In intimate relationships, they must worry that the man they marry will not resort to domestic violence or treat them badly within the confines of their homes. If they become pregnant, there will be pressure on them to abort the girls (Pakistan has one of the highest rates of abortion as well). If the girl child is allowed to survive, she will have subpar access to education and health and will grow up in a world that is as unjust and unfair as the one inhabited by her mother.
All of this must change. If Pakistan wants to progress, Pakistan must change. Instead of arguing whether women’s equality is a worthy goal or not, there needs to be an organized effort to deliver Pakistani women from the hell of discrimination and mistreatment that is their life. Pakistan’s ranking as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman should be a cause for national shame.
Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani men, must be made to realize that half of the country’s population is women and the fact that they face such dismal conditions means that the country is an unjust and oppressive state. If this is not a cause for shame, it points to the fact that there is something deeply and morally wrong with Pakistan’s cultural norms; that the values of the country have disintegrated to such an extent that treating half the population like undeserving and unwanted captives is considered OK. Pakistani women must not be made to wait more than 100 years for a better life. As Pakistanis, they deserve better than that.
– Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.