Second last where it matters most

As if it were not bad enough that Pakistan has always shown a dismal performance when it comes to the gender gap, there is more bad news: it is getting worse, not better, over the years. Either these indicators are being ignored by the people responsible for this sector or there is no will to face the challenges in mainstreaming women in the workforce. Or both.
According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) recent report, Pakistan may take a little less than a century to close this gap. What remains between this reality and the year 2095 are millions of women whose status is no better than a herb that has to be extinguished to be of any benefit. Pakistan is ranked the second last country globally in terms of economic participation and opportunity for women. Economic equality is a mirror image of the equality culture dictates on gender. The problem lies with the religious conservatives. The problem is with laws like the Hudood Ordinance and the problem is when the rights of women are traded as bargaining chips for religious parties. Take, for example, the case of the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal’s (MMA’s) Hasba Bill that required male guardians to accompany women in every public endeavour.
If reincarnation were a fact, Ziaul Haq would come back a pithy creature for what he did for women’s rights in Pakistan, but others that have carried his ideology to its end are even more worthy of a despicable life. The dictate that women do not go to school, do not go to male doctors and that marketplaces be inaccessible to them does to the gender gap what swallowing plastic bags does to sparrows. Accessibility to health, education and markets is what allows for any sense of empowerment for women to take root. It is where women can leverage their strengths and network to form more connections that augment what they have more of, be it food, a craft or even ideas. Blocking this is what kills progress both for women and for an economy as frail as Pakistan’s.
For all the slogans religious parties yell against the fact that Pakistan is submissive to foreign powers, there is little understanding that the remedy for that is working to improve indicators for women’s economic empowerment. The quantum of time lost each year to women choking away at the stove instead of experiencing an illuminating path to an economic pursuit is perhaps galactic; enough not to be ever made up, so that women’s children and their children find only darkness.
Sadly, the leadership advocating for women to bow before cultural hegemony are often secure themselves from back-breaking poverty. I have yet to see a hipster religious czar who does not travel in a diesel filed SUV entourage. Any change for it to have an impact has to be a drastic one. The rot has set in deep and its takers are many. Even women are buying it as their fate. When women leave to go to a workplace, they are so rabidly harassed standing for a taxi or walking to a bus stand that they find solace in quitting their jobs. The tyranny of misogyny haunts them in the form of harassment in the workplace that is both sexualised and more generalised. Women, the moment they recognise they are women, simultaneously recognise here that they are inferior. The cultural conditioning is set early.
Where is all the development money poured in over the years going if it is not fixing the gender gap? In a recent development project for education scholarships, many women applicants, after making it in the shortlist to go abroad and study, dropped out. What reason did they cite? Family disapproval. This is where all development aid, no matter how well-meaning or well-planned, crumbles under itself. Most gender sensitive programmes have a justification section that explains how the numbers for women targeted could not be met and then that is that. Men make up for those allocated positions.
In this way and more, society rewards the very people who have waged war (and make a mistake, it is a war) in this country on women. It enhances the prestige, wealth and status of those very people that keep women behind, themselves ahead. Pakistan is that shameful nation that is only a few thousand women away from being the best country in treating women the worst they can be treated in terms of economic empowerment.

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