Mistreating women – Pakistan’s lasting shame

Mistreating women – Pakistan’s lasting shame

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Earlier this month, an influential new report – the Global Gender Gap Report 2023 from the World Economic Forum – ranked Pakistan in the bottom five of 146 countries evaluated, indicating how appallingly it treats its women when it comes to rights, opportunities and rewards. Only Iran, Algeria, Chad and Afghanistan fare worse. And the 2023 rating is supposed to be Pakistan’s best since 2006.

The annual report benchmarks the current state and evolution of gender parity across four key dimensions – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Pakistan does not figure in the top 80 in any of the four indicators and often finds itself in the bottom 20, accumulatively attaining the dubious overall distinction.

Pakistan’s firmly 19th century patriarchal outlook in the 21st century, as embedded in socio-cultural values and political-economic structures, are not only keeping its women dispossessed in general and disempowered in particular, they are also ensuring the country’s socio-economic development indicators remain locked in reversal. This is untenable.

Pull-quote: Power structures such as cabinets, legislatures, political committees, judiciary, bureaucracy and board rooms will have to be mandated with beefed up quotas of women to build a critical mass of decision making to be transferred to women. 

- Adnan Rehma

The abysmal development scores for women in Pakistan are the result of a combination of failures stemming from social, cultural, economic, and political failures. A deeply ingrained patriarchal culture means women are often institutionally subordinated to men socially, limiting access to education, health care, employment opportunities and decision-making power. Gender discrimination is thus entrenched.

If only women’s access to education matched men’s, limited as it is to them also – the country’s literacy rate in 2023 was 58 percent including 72.5 percent for males and 51.8 percent for women – women would have half a chance at improving their lot themselves. Official apathy, cultural norms, economic constraints, and traditional gender roles discourage families from investing in girls’ education. This perpetuates gender disparities.

Women also face significant economic challenges. They are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, where wages are low, job security is scarce, and labor rights are often disregarded. Limited access to financial services makes it difficult for them to start businesses or access credit thereby limiting their ability to secure better economic opportunities or political participation. 

Despite some progress in recent years, Pakistan’s legal and policy frameworks often fail to adequately protect women’s rights and address disparities. The country’s dichotomous political structure – the Council of Islamic Ideology, established by a religiously zealous military dictator, often torpedoes women-friendly legislation as un-Islamic, shortchanging women.

All these factors expose women to violence – something the WEF report doesn’t even measure or rank. Pakistan faces high rates of gender-based violence, including domestic abuse, honor killings, acid attacks, and forced marriages. These are everyday media stories. And this pervasive violence creates a hostile environment for women and restricts their ability to exercise their rights, pursue opportunities, and contribute to society.

This effective disenfranchisement and disempowerment cannot continue for much longer. Either Pakistan’s appalling treatment of its women must end, or the country’s socio-economic structure will go down with the women’s ill fate. The entirely unavoidable, mostly illiterate, powerless, hurt and unhappy women’s demographic will not bring Pakistan development or progress.

To change this will not be easy but must happen necessitating, among other things, concerted efforts from both state and society including steeling state priority to improve women’s welfare through consistent political will. Challenging and transforming outdated and outmoded socio-cultural norms will need to be sustained. Understanding and addressing the link between women’s economic productivity, development and welfare will be necessary. Dramatically improving educational and health indicators that underpin women’s empowerment and social development will be paramount.

But mostly resistance to change, especially among conservative sections of society that impede progress in women’s empowerment, will have to be tackled to break down deeply rooted beliefs, societal pressures, and resistance from influential stakeholders that pose significant challenges to women’s welfare.

Pakistan will have to go beyond lip service and seriously structuralize the empowerment of women through legal guarantees, enforcement of rights and a dramatically scaled up investment in their socio-economic indicators.

All this will have to be manifested through the power structure. Power structures such as cabinets, legislatures, central executive committees of political parties, judiciary, bureaucracy, board rooms and registration as voters will have to be mandated with beefed up quotas of women to build a critical mass of decision making to be transferred to women. This will allow them deserved greater control of their lives and fates. Pakistani women deserve no less than this as a matter of right, not favor. 

- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1


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