Role of women in Pakistan’s workforce

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By Senator Rehman Malik

Today I decided to touch a topic which grasped my attention when I recently visited Turkey and observed the contribution of Turkish women in the growth of their economy.
I observed both sides of the Black Sea, the one which touches Asia and the other Eastern Europe. This part of the world encompasses diverse nations bearing thousands of years of different cultures defining the role of a woman, very differently. I witnessed hard working and dedicated women valiantly contributing to the growing economy of Turkey. It made me think as to how the working women of the East/ Pakistan are facing numerous issues in comparison to the women of the West.
Allah created a pair of men and women, which are commonly known to be the two wheels of life. With the spectacular advancement of the world, the assembly and function of these two wheels have considerably transformed the society. In contrast to the past, now both the wheels must contribute not only for the growth of their family but also for the nation building. Although East and West have completely different cultures, yet with the passage of time the liberation in financial independence and emotional dependence of women is becoming a common feature.

Women demonstrating in support of their demand in regards to rights and better working atmosphere (File picture)

It is not easy to be a woman in a male dominant society and there are paramount cultural and faith pressures on eastern women to care for and educate their children well. Women are expected to carry out their responsibilities of bringing up their children in a way to become disciplined and well-groomed child. In a strongly connected nuclear family system, males are considered the heads of the family responsible to cater for the needs of all members financially. Thus, culturally the burden of financial support lies on the shoulders of male members, creating an imbalance in the economic/ financial growth and development of the family in particular, and the country in general. According to UNDP, the gender difference in Pakistan can be expressed as the inside/outside dichotomy; women are mostly exposed to inner boundaries of household and are restricted to the duties of keeping the house in order. Their contributions in raising the family and in farm affairs is considered as their cultural duty and part of their gender specific role; which remains un-paid and unappreciated as an economic contribution in nation building.
Thus this cultural behaviour creates a barrier for women to seek education and opt for employment. The cultural disparity makes women invisible in the work force and job market. As a result, compared with other developing countries, gender expressed weak indicators of Pakistan nation building. On the basis of the above analysis, it is appropriate to quote here, that when you educate a man, you educate one person. But when you educate a woman, you have educated a nation. If the women are culturally responsible for ethical and moral development of the family, so as a first instructor to the children her own education is not only important but necessary, because the family in turn is the first unit of the society.
Furthermore, more and more dependency of eastern women on the male members leaves effects on the psychological dynamics as well. The dependency can create insecurity in the minds of eastern women and lesser exposure makes them more fearful of the society and the undisclosed fears making them vulnerable and less effective in the society as compared to their Western counterparts who are more independent in terms of finances and decision-making. In 2014, 46.5% of total US women were part of the workforce whereas in the same year, only 22.3% of total Pakistani women figured in the labour force, thus contributing less than men over the years. The Labour Force Survey of 1991-1992 showed that only 16% of women were part of labour force, where as their participation indicated only 6.3% increase in over two decades. The figures for the formal sectors are even more shocking, where only 2% of women representation was observed in 1999 according to a report of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The major reason for this huge difference prevalence lies in the fundamental cultural values embedded in the system. In Pakistani society gender specific roles are profoundly defined than in many other cultures making males to be the head of the family and, therefore, enjoying more power over women including decision-making powers. Another reason for the lower contribution of women in the eastern society to the economy particularly in countries like Pakistan is their relatively lower educational levels and fewer formal job skills. This limitation is the foremost barrier to the never-ending problems for the women in societies like ours. Apart from the lack of opportunity and acceptance for the women to become entrepreneurs or even to work; the lower level of formal education restricts them from acquiring jobs that are of higher level. For Primary education, female to male ration of enrolment in 1990-1991 was 0.47; in 1999-2000 it reached 0.74 that amounts for an increase of 57% in one decade. In middle level education category, at the start of the decade the ratio was 0.42 that increased to 0.68. At college level the ratio was 0.50 at the start and 0.91 at the end.
Government should join hand and encourage the organizations, which are working for improving gender equality, and are striving to provide better opportunities for women to succeed. Government level collaboration could be done with non-profit organizations, which run countrywide schools, with the motive to keep a balanced ratio of gender in their campuses. Similar initiatives on government level should also be taken across all provinces, to reduce the gender parity in education.
We can only hope that through our collective efforts gender segregation and the institutionalisation of gender disparities could be reduced and are completely overcome one day. We should work endlessly to reach a level where women who do work are not exposed to harsh working conditions of less than minimum wage, long working ours, no medical and job security, discrimination and harassment.
Furthermore with respect to the cultural conservativeness the employment and entrepreneurial opportunities that women are exposed to should be in accordance to cater for these limitations. Women who are not allowed to work outside the house could be made a part of cottage industry where she could work from home, provided her wages and earned income is raised. Initiatives should be made on governmental level where entrepreneurial opportunities are provided to women, working directly from their homes. This can be done by opening free skill training centres in every major location, so that women are empowered and could materialize their skills into a business, thus contributing in the wellbeing of their family and country.
Different interpretations of religion make a very difficult scenario for the women right to be rightfully projected in a workplace. However, Islam since its advent has protected the rights of women in all ways possible. Our beloved Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) made education compulsory for both men and women. Similarly, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H), Hazrat Khadija (R.A) who was a successful entrepreneur 1400 years ago, is a role model for women of all centuries. As per today, I believe that the Islamic scholars and religious organization should also be taken into confidence by the government, to make sure that correct preaching regarding women’s role in nation building is made possible, so that people could be made aware of the important the role women have to play in nation building by helping their families as well as their country.
(The author is PPP central leader and member of Pakistan Senate.)