Pakistan continues to struggle with gender equality

Nearly 12 million women voters are absent from the voters list, writes Farhatullah Babar

Pakistan continues to struggle with gender equality
According to World Economic Forum’s latest report on gender gap published two weeks ago, Pakistan is the third worst country in terms of gender equality, just ahead of Iraq and Yemen and ranks at 151 out of 153 countries surveyed.

The report evaluated progress in distinct areas: economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment of women. The scorecard for Pakistan showed that it ranked 150th in economic participation, 143rd in educational attainment, 149th in health and survival and 93rd in political empowerment. In 2006, Pakistan stood at 112 in the ranking. It hit the lowest in 2020 in all areas of women empowerment, according to the report.

According to the report, economic opportunities for women in Pakistan are too limited (32 per cent). While 85 percent of men participate in the labour force, women’s participation in labour is less than 25 percent. No more than five percent of women are in senior and leadership roles. About 18 per cent of Pakistan’s labour income goes to the women workers and is at the lowest rung of the ladder among the countries surveyed. Among the seven South Asian countries, Pakistan is placed at the bottom. Bangladesh ranks 50, followed by Nepal (101), Sri Lanka (102), India (112), Maldives (123), Bhutan (131) and Pakistan (151).

The case study of Bangladesh, which broke from Pakistan in 1971, is of special significance. East Pakistan (as BD was then called) was far lower in human development ranking index compared with Western wing in the united Pakistan. Bangladesh has reined in its army. After the retirement of Pakistan trained military officers, their replacement with indigenously trained officers and stalling military’s intervention in governance Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in human development. No wonder that today Bangladesh is top ranking country in South Asia having closed over 70 percent of its overall gender gap.

Women’s participation in economic and political processes in Pakistan has been rather dismal. Today nearly 12 million women voters are absent from the voters list, disenfranchising women. Women in domestic service and in agricultural fields are neither accounted for as organized labour nor give equal and fair wages in violation of the ILO Convention which Pakistan has signed. The first draft Constitution of Pakistan guaranteed equal wages but it never saw the light of the day as dictatorship struck in 1958. Only recently that the provincial cabinet of Sindh approved a draft bill that formalizes women working in agricultural fields.

A key factor in women political disempowerment is the mode of elections of women to parliamentary seats. The number of reserved seats for women in the National Assembly has progressively increased from 10 in the 1970s to 60 at present but this increase has not translated into their political empowerment. The reserved seats have only further empowered political parties’ heads, strengthened political patriarchy and elite political families but not empowered women in politics. That is why even right wing political parties, known for opposing women in politics, ungrudgingly nominate women on reserved seats to further enhance patriarchal political interests.

It is important that women on reserved seats be elected directly by the electorate instead of nomination by the parties’ heads. Women should be allowed to cast two votes; one for the general seat and the other for the special women seat in some selected constituencies to address issues of special concern to women only. A single voter casting multiple votes is not something new or strange as it has been practiced in the local bodies’ polls.

It should also be made mandatory for male winners in any constituency to secure a minimum percentage of women votes. Assigning women votes some additional weight will also increase women empowerment in elections.

The Political Parties Order can be suitably amended to enlarge women participation in a party’s decision making process. The powers of a party head to nominate candidates on reserved seats needs to be made more democratic and merit oriented.

The Election Act 2017 provides for nomination of a mandatory five percent women candidates on general seats by political parties. However, there is no mechanism for action against parties that fail to meet this mandatory requirement. The law needs to be suitably amended.

The gender gap actually underpins how a society treats women. As long as women are treated as chattel and as an appendage of men instead of as a separate legal entity, the problem will remain. It was depressing when recently some powerful elements of the state reportedly voiced disapproval of women oriented Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) as a drain on national resources.

The situation of political and economic empowerment of women during the PTI tenure has unfortunately further gone down. There has not been a single minister in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cabinet. As of the beginning of the year, there were only three women in the 25-member federal cabinet. It recently struck off nearly one million poor women from the list of beneficiaries of the BISP.

Sometime back, the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa did not allow the book launching ceremony of Malala Yousufzai’s book, banned women cycle rally and a local government in the province ordered school girls to wear abayas.

The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) remains dysfunctional as its chairperson and members have retired and the posts have not yet been filled, just like that of the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR). In the “Interim System of Administration in FATA 2018,” women and local bodies find no mention. The PTI government must shake off its anti-women bias.

The writer is a former senator