Now that the feel-good factor of International Women’s Day is wearing off — it is time to get down to the nitty gritty. For just one day earlier, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) released its World Employment Social Outlook — Trends 2018 (WESO) report. And it paints a pretty grim picture. According to its findings, only 28 percent of South Asian women are in employment; though things are worse in the Middle East where this figure is put at around 19 percent. And Pakistan is singled out, along with Iran, as one of the worst nations for women in terms of employment opportunities. Or put another way, where female unemployment rates run highest. Sadly, this should come as no surprise given that Pakistani women comprise 22 percent of the national workforce; with just three percent employed in the formal sector. Meaning that an overwhelming majority are robbed of fundamental labour rights such as minimum wage and contractual agreements. We need to look no further than Krishna Kumari, recently elected to the Senate, who has spoken of her life in ‘captivity’; where she was held by an influential landlord in a private prison for bonded labour. According to the WESO report, most women in South Asia find themselves working as unskilled labourers; with a large percentage employed in agriculture or in low-productivity traditional services. The same holds true here in Pakistan. Thus the incoming government must commit to regulating the informal economy — with particular focus on bringing domestic workers into the mainstream. This includes access to child care services and maternity leave. Unfortunately, even some of the most influential women in the country are deprived of such support structures. During a dialogue on the role of women legislators at the Sindh Assembly last month, some parliamentarians complained that the provincial government had been unable to arrange a room for young mothers. Going forward, it is important for civil society, the media and whoever will form the opposition following this summer’s elections to keep the political leadership on its toes when it comes to endeavours to getting more women to join the workforce. At the heart of which must be the prioritising of women and girls’ education. This is all the more important because Pakistan is currently at war with groups like ISIS and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which vehemently oppose female education. Towards this end, the state must take up the issue of child marriages and actively encourage a societal shift that says young women do not have to been put under pressure to marry early; that studying is an investment for the future. Then there is the issue of women’s mobility and access to transport. The rise of ride sharing applications like Uber and Careem have definitely helped women in large Pakistani cities enjoy a greater degree of ‘freedom’, but more needs to be done. Initiatives like Zar Aslam’s pink rickshaw scheme must be encouraged. However, the biggest hurdle women face when it comes too commuting is likely sexual harassment. According to the Aurat Foundation’s “Women’s Safety Audit”, as much as 90 percent of women in Lahore have face sexual harassment on public transport. Clearly, much more needs to be done on this front. The addition of more women to the police force can be very helpful in this regard. The authorities have already done well by appointing a federal ombudsperson for protection of harassment of women in the workplace. However, this does no good for the 97 percent who are employed in the informal sector. Putting women centre-stage has to be about more than just one day out of the entire year. * Published in Daily Times, March 10th 2018.