Pakistan has vastly disparate gender distribution in its Labor Force and does not offer the economic environment and social norms, which are necessary to pursue the agenda for women’s empowerment. This has also negatively impacted Human Development in the country. Therefore, it will be necessary to create amiable conditions and gradually increase acceptability of women’s participation, as to catalyze the process of empowerment.
Amartya Sen had argued that social development is more important than economic development to achieve gender equality among South Asian states. Concurring to that assessment, it is important to understand that policy measures, including those of economic empowerment, are pursued with the intention of achieving social development goals i.e. literacy, maternal/reproductive rights, economic self-sufficiency, vocational training, family-planning, etc., which leads to grass-roots changes.
Pakistan has so far been depending on top-down approach toward empowerment, which in many cases does not help the most vulnerable. For example, the recent passage of Women Protection Bills in Sindh and Punjab, and the creation of Violence Against Women Centers (VAWCs), lack the incentive for women who are dependent on Male breadwinners to seek help, although they are still by far among the most important developments for women’s protection in Pakistan. A better and perhaps more effective approach is the one envisaged through the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) and similarly the Punjab government’s Income Support initiative, both of which provide cash transfers (although, only small amounts, of up to 1, 500 rupees) directly to women, and encourages women entrepreneurship and investments on children’s education.
Similar measures, with better monitoring and evaluation, have been employed in Bangladesh and India, which have seen the two regional countries exceed Pakistan on HDI and economic indicators. To look for policy inspiration, which is relatively much more practicable for Pakistan due to similarities in social values and stages of development, we can look toward our region, as well as Kenya and Morocco.
As pointed out earlier, key requirements for better-paying jobs and access to other sectors are skills training and higher education. In Morocco, this need has been adequately recognized and the government has aggressively used cash benefits to encourage parents to provide education to their daughters at par to their sons; the ‘Tayssir’ program provides 5 percent of the household income to families for keeping Girls in schools, and a result has led to a 75 percent decrease in the dropout rate and an 80 percent increase in re-enrollment of girls who had been previously taken out of school. In Kenya, where the tradition of ‘booking’ girls for marriage at a young age (similar to Pakistan’s betrothals of young boys and girls under influence of elders), in return to economic benefit in the shape of dowry or land or livestock, has been ingeniously transformed by the Naning’oi Girls Boarding School project which ‘books’ the girls for enrollment into school and gives similar benefits in return of letting girls complete their education.
The biggest success may perhaps be Bangladesh’s Female Stipend Program (FSP) which was launched in 1994, and within 20 years achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of gender parity in enrollment, which today has resulted in greater labor-force parity; the FSP provides a monthly cash transfer on the condition of maintaining a good GPA and attendance, while also remaining unmarried.
The success of these policies in contexts similar to Pakistan’s reflect their probable effectiveness if adopted, however, care should be taken in designing them in order not to actually increase the perception that girls are somehow a “financial burden” which the government is subsidizing but rather shape it in a way which emphasizes the need for proper education. As argued earlier, education not only would provide the skills necessary to enter the labor-force, but schools can be an environment where the girls can be informed better about their rights, health issues, protection legislation and family-planning, which in turn would also benefit their children and other women in their communities.
Outcomes of providing education to girls will however be effective over long periods of time, while women also require relief in the short-term which can be ensured by providing employment opportunities, especially in rural areas, to provide them an income. One successful model comes from India, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), which ensures both men and women get 100 days of unskilled employment every year. Multiple studies on the MNREGS suggest that the resultant employment positively effects both women’s economic empowerment as well as human capital development by the impact on children. Nandini Nayak and Reetika Khera noted in their assessment that women reported getting satisfaction from receiving equal wages as men while also keeping the wage for their own use. Another assessment by the Oxford based Young Lives center noted that MNREGS resulted in a positive impact on children’s schooling outcomes, with a stronger impact on girls. Women’s employment and economic autonomy has also shown to reduce domestic violence according to the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS). This example provides clear evidence that employment, even for unskilled women can have positive benefits for their empowerment as well as on human development outcomes. It also serves as a good paradigm for Pakistan to pursue with regards to it social security policies in rural areas.
The polices suggested are by no means a comprehensive response to the challenges, but only perhaps a starting point for reforms, as they focus on the two key elements: education and employment. Pakistan needs to take inspiration from among its partners and competitors, and formulate social safety measures to support women’s economic empowerment which are both better suited to our local needs as well as takes into account our unique circumstances. A national narrative for women’s empowerment can come about as a result of the recognition of the economic necessity of their increased participation and the positive outcomes on human development, which are both indispensable for Pakistan to stay relevant globally, and its own sustainable and equitable growth.
(This article was the last part of our discussion on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Pakistan. We previously highlighted the economic loss and stunted Human Development which is a direct consequence of disparate women’s participation in the economy and society.)