Nothing to celebrate

‘No wonder studies show that women’s intellectual self-esteem tends to go down as years of education go up. We have been studying our own absence.’ — Gloria Steinem

Women’s day is supposed to be my day, but I am not celebrating it. I am not celebrating it because my country Pakistan ranks second worst on the gender gap statistics. Simply put, women are not treated well in this country.The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Report placement of Pakistan shows that the greatest distance between male-female equality occurs in two areas; namely economic participation and political empowerment. A recent UNDP report, “Gender equality in Public administration — A case study of Pakistan” has found that women’s participation in the political arena has increased by 50 percent in the last 15 years but only one in five women actually participate in the workforce. We see women’s stars shine in one or more fields in Pakistan but this change is not transcending to the bulk of women. Cases like those of the mountain climber Samina Baig, pilot Ayesha Farooq or newly elected senator Krishna Kumari are certainly triumphs, but they are exceptions — not the rule. We are not making a change that includes all women yet.

Being a woman, who served first in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and then in the civil service as a second career; I know that the picture of women’s empowerment portrayed by the government is not true. Even the PAF — which proudly announced to the world that it has enrolled women fighter pilots, ignored the fact that many of the women opted out of flying due to a lack of supportive structures and societal pressure about issues like marriage and motherhood. In the Pakistan Civil Service (PCS), at the federal government level women constitute a mere 4.6 percent of the workforce(UNDP). We have the highest concentration of female officers in middle level management in Punjab. This promptly fissile out when it comes to heading districts as there is no enabling environments for them to work.

Most of this work force is employed in the informal sector — which is open to exploitation. Only 26 percent of the women’s workforce is employed in the formal sector. In the formal sectors as well, we see men thriving as usual whereas women struggle to keep pace

We find very few women in the senior level management. Though yes, the number of women has doubled in the public sector in a mere 20 years, it has not translated into substantive women’s empowerment. Despite the opening of quotas for women in all spheres of life, improvement in female literacy rates and labour force numbers, why are we failing the cause of gender equality?

In Pakistan’s case — the devil is in the details. As mentioned earlier, women today have more opportunities to join the work force. However, most of this work force is employed in the informal sector — which is open to exploitation. Only 26 percent of the women’s workforce is employed in the formal sector (UNDP).In the formal sectors as well, we see men thriving as usual whereas women struggle to keep pace.

The patriarchal structure of organizations makes it very difficult for women to advance even if they are able to enter organisations.  Just increasing the number of women in the work force without changing organizational structure is akin to window dressing. For women, this situation feels like a defeat despite breaking the barriers in hope of making work conditions women friendly.

In Pakistan’s public sector, bulk of women is concentrated in the middle and lower levels. We hardly see women at the top policies making positions. Rather than making gendered considerations part of all policies, it is dealt with by making a separate gender policy; which more than often come across as a superficial way to deal with lack of gender perspective in policy making.

The realm of political empowerment is also disappointing. The number of women politician’s in the national legislature has increased from 3 percent in 1988 to 19.5 percent in the post 2013 elections (SSRC). Women’s participation has increased through introduction of a women’s quota in legislature. Women quotas were created to more women a chance to join the legislature. However, this political participation is mostly concentrated to women from powerful political parties. The National Assembly of Pakistan has a total of 60 reserved seats for women. A glance at most of the last names reveal political pedigree. This should have prompted the way for more women to be elected on general seats but that has not happened. We hardly see women from the middle or lower classes reaching policy making circles. Even when elected, most women politicians seldom make alliances on issues of women empowerment and prefer to toe their party’s line.

Sexual harassment remains one of the biggest issues in Pakistan. This epidemic is spread from the streets and bazaars all the way to the workplace — and in some cases even the home. The Government has now passed praiseworthy legislation against harassment but without implementation, it serves no purpose. Pakistan’s culture makes a woman’s chastity a matter of the whole society’s honour. As a direct consequence of this warped worldview, Pakistani women are still reluctant to report sexual assault or harassment cases. A cultural shift is slow and at times it seems to be reversing in face of rise of extremist and ultra-religious thought strains in the society.

There are many steps that can be taken to close the gender equality gap at workplace. Firstly, make gendered policies in place of policy with gender component. Equal wage law must be put in place to cover vulnerable women in informal sectors. In case of the public sector, patriarchal structures must be amended to end alienation of women at the work place. Political parties must make an effort to include women from all economic classes in decision making. An impact evaluation of the parliamentary women caucus will also be imperative to understand its actual effectiveness. Women have made inroads in many sectors; their progress must not be stalled or reversed. United Nations estimates that at the current speed of events, the world will not be able to close the gender equality gap until 2086. Pakistan needs to play its part in improving this pace. There should not be just one day to celebrate women’s success nor incidences to know that we need to empower half of the population of Pakistan.

The writer is a policy practitioner, an Oxford public policy alumnus, Aspen new voices and Build Peace Fellow

Published in Daily Times, March 7th 2018.