Redefining women’s empowerment

LAHORE: The gender wage gap is real—and hurts women across the board, more so in countries like Pakistan where gender bias begins at birth, and most available resources are reserved for male children only.

Developed economies have more or less reduced this gap; however, women with the same education and experience still earn less than their male counterparts. Most of the developing economies have also reduced this gap substantially.

In South Asia, Sri Lanka has narrowed the gender gap through education, Bangladesh by creating millions of jobs in the apparel sector, and India through a mix of education and apparel-based employment.

As a result, these economies have also reduced poverty drastically. Even in Far East Asia, the lowest developed economies empowered their women through apparel-based jobs. Vietnam and Cambodia are the two examples. These two countries have emerged as major textile players in the last one decade.

Vietnam and Bangladesh textile exports are more than double our textile exports. So, besides reducing poverty, the empowerment of women has also boosted their exports.

Another positive impact of empowering women is that the population growth in all these economies has drastically reduced. This has reduced the additional burden that poor economies have to face because of high population growth.

It is unfortunate that we have lagged far behind our regional economies. Women in Pakistan not only lag far behind men in access to education, but also in employment.

Even in the apparel sector, where all the above-mentioned economies employ 90 percent women workers, the ratio of women in our stitching centres is hardly 25 percent. Garment-making is more suited for women, but we employ 75 percent men even in this sub-sector of textiles.

While the family planning programmes have been highly successful in our competing economies, our family planning projects are in shambles which is the reason that our population is growing at the rate of 2.4 percent, one of the highest in the world.

Working out the costs and benefits of a programme to improve women’s rights is not easy, but analyses by the Copenhagen Consensus offer some valuable insights.

For example, investing a dollar in family planning programmes can yield benefits worth $120 – an amazingly high return. It is clear that gender equality has a number of important components, but reproduction is a key issue in determining life opportunities.

In particular, allowing women to decide if, when, and how often they become pregnant leads to fewer deaths in childbirth and fewer infant deaths. It also gives mothers more time to devote to raising their children and investing in the next generation. It is not surprising, then, that money spent on family-planning programmes turns out to be such a good investment.

The evidence from different approaches and countries is that spending one dollar on improving women’s access to economic opportunities yields about $7 in health, education, and poverty-alleviation benefits.

Other studies show that spending a dollar on improving girls’ education is also a sound investment, producing $5 of benefits for each dollar spent.

Plenty of other gender equality targets exist, which would improve the overall society, but we do not have cost/benefits for all.

For example, ensuring that women have equal rights to inherit, sign a contract, register a business, or open a bank account would cost little, but could have far-reaching economic benefits that have not yet been quantified.

Decisions taken by women about their occupation and career do not happen in a vacuum, but are shaped by the society. Shouldering the majority of caretaking duties in a family impacts their participation in work requiring long hours. Often highest-paid occupations are not taken up by women for these reasons.

It leaves them the option of working informally, which in itself is a problem. Workers are exploited economically as well as socially in Pakistan, and women workers are exploited more, especially within informal work environments.

A legacy of colonial exploitation, informality in an economy continues to rise due to lack of capital in most underdeveloped countries, faulty state policies, economic mismanagement and corrupt practices. Misguided policies of international financial institutions, gender-based labour division in the economy, and the logic of capitalism further exacerbate the problems.

Women workers employed particularly in informal sectors do not have any legal or social protection. They have no bargaining power. Additionally, presence of informal workers weakens those within formal employment too.

These include agricultural workers, rag-pickers, construction workers, home-based workers, domestic workers or helps, street vendors or sellers, part-time workers. Informal estimates indicate that there are 20 million home-based workers in Pakistan, of which 12 million are women.

To end exploitation and to empower workers, especially women, there is a need to recognise those who work in the informal or unorganised sector carrying out remunerative work. They should have access to basic social services, such as health care, housing, education, and social security.


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