Pakistan needs more working women
Waqar Mustafa
About one fourth of 15- to 64-year-old women in Pakistan are part of the country's workforce. This puts female labour force participation in the nation at half the global average despite an average annual increase of two per cent since 1990.
Most women are caregivers - a role that surely helps sustain the society but doesn't get valued for what it's worth. It remains unpaid and unrecognised. A United Nations survey conducted in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces shows that in a given day, women spend two hours collecting water and firewood, and another four hours in care work that includes cooking, cleaning, and looking after children and elderly.
Stymieing women's participation in the labour force are gender gaps in access to education, higher reproductive burden, social pressures, harassment, and restrictions to mobility. Most women in the workforce (some 75 per cent) have no formal education and only 32 per cent have education levels of intermediate and higher. It isn't a surprise then that their contribution to the country's kitty is less than a third, much below their potential.
The country of 208 million people is wrestling with a balance-of-payments crisis. One can only imagine the significant impact gender parity could have on the country. Pakistan currently ranks sixth worst on the Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum among 149 countries on women's economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.
Empowering women and broadening their horizons could help Pakistan in many ways, especially since women make up about half the country's population and most of them are not contributing to the country's economy.
In her book Crisis that deals with economic crises and gender, British sociologist Sylvia Walby writes: "The best route for economic growth out of recession is through the full utilisation of women's labour, effective policies for full employment, removal of labour market discrimination, and the enhancement of policies to facilitate combining employment and care-work. An increase in employment and improvement in its quality would provide a significant boost to the economy."
Girls should be allowed more years of education, healthier lives, and better economic opportunities. Installing infrastructure that provides fundamental services such as healthcare, public safety, education, and access to water can abbreviate the household work of women and open avenues for them. For a fairer human, feminist economy, unpaid work must be recognised, and men and women must share the burden of domestic chores.
Effective implementation of laws on sexual harassment and violence against women will encourage women to engage in economic activity outside their homes. Regular awareness-raising campaigns should change social norms that perpetuate gender-based violence both at home and outside. Harassment-free transport options should be made available for women to access jobs. Advancements in digital technologies and automation are making women in the formal sector apprehensive about their career prospects.
Keeping in mind its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) promises, particularly number four and eight, Pakistan must prepare its potential workforce, including women, by making long-term sustainable investments in fundamental skills through literacy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to enable them to compete in the new economy. Building skills early would also provide the most important safeguard against displacement by technology and allow women to benefit from new work opportunities. Supporting technological adoption and closing digital gender gaps can do wonders. Promoting equal rights for women, investing in human capital, introducing gender-sensitive policies that seek to foster opportunity and remove barriers, supporting female entrepreneurs by increasing their access to finance, and transforming social norms can increase women's economic participation.
The World Economic Forum report says that if by 2025, women's participation in Pakistan's labour force increases and stands equal to men, the country will witness a 60 per cent increase in gross domestic product or the GDP, equal to an overall gain of $251 billion or about $1,324 per person. Bringing down the gender barriers will surely mean a huge windfall - a promising, secure and progressive future.