Pakistan | Empowered Women can create a stronger, healthier Pakistan

Empowered Women can create a stronger, healthier Pakistan

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According to UNDP, Pakistan ranks 146th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), at 0.537 as against the South Asia average of 0.588 and the global average of 0.702.

This fact alone should ring alarm bells for the Government.

Further expanding upon the argument that women are more likely to be “altruistic” in their family-related financial decisions, while educated women can cater better to family needs, we can thus hypothesize that empowering women will directly lead to an increase in Human Development indexes, as investment on children’s education, family health and equitable rationing of food leads to positive long-term outcomes. London School of Economics-based social economist Naila Kabeer assesses research work from several regions and writes, “Studies from a variety of different contexts suggest that women’s access to a range of valued resources, including education, employment, land, cash transfers, and credit, is associated with increased investments in family welfare, including children’s health and education.” This increased spending, under economically empowered women, could in effect lead to a higher literacy rate, lower infant mortality rate, higher female labor-force participation, increase political and social participation among women, and so on.

It is very relevant to mention here that, according to the CIA World Fact Book, Pakistan ranks among the top 30 countries of the world (from a list of 225) with the highest infant mortality rate (i.e. average no. of deaths for every 1000 live births). While high infant mortality may primarily be due unavailability of working medical facilities in rural areas, a secondary cause is the lack of knowledge among rural women regarding childbirth or the financial autonomy needed to seek better health care outside villages.

As a result, Pakistan loses nearly 54 newborn children for every 1000 who live. It has been noted that much of these deaths would be prevented if proper care is given to the mother in the form of higher investment on maternal health during pregnancy; In India, as policy measures have been put in place to provide financial help to pregnant mothers and in some cases mandatory maternal leave, the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) has been brought down to 30, which was until the 1960s as high as Pakistan’s.

Another rather disturbing trend to note is that though the Female IMR is 50.6 as compared to 57 for Males — which illustrates the well-known resilience among female fetuses (and women, in general) against common diseases — but ratio-wise Men still form a higher percentage of the adult population. This trend suggests the occurrence of sex-wise abortions in preference of a Male child, as well as the likelihood of a girl child not receiving adequate medical attention as compared to boys, and hence the sex ratio for Males rises as we move along the age groups until the 60+ age demographic where the no. of men falls as women outlive them (again, as a result of being more resilient to disease); this is what is termed as the “Missing Women” phenomenon, which deprives the nation of countless brilliant women, who could have contributed positively to the economy and society, due to myopic societal norms such as female infanticide. In a sense, not only do women suffer in the labor-market, but they also suffer as young girls and even before being conceived.

The Need for a more inclusive approach

Unfortunately, no quick solution is available to counter such beliefs, and Kabeer notes that in traditional societies, we may have to depend on “Paternal altruism” to eventual defeat these attitudes. She writes, “ … with economic development, men were either more willing to surrender some rights to their wives to ensure their children were better educated or else their interests as husbands (wanting all the rights) began to conflict with their interests as fathers (wanting to protect their daughters against their future husbands).” While this paper does not seek to deny the benefits of economic growth for gender equality, there is considerable evidence available which suggests that this particular correlation is weak. Economic growth is seen as the increase in the overall GDP per capita; neither does it note the Region-wise increase (/decrease) in per capita nor the Gender-wise increase (/decrease).

This is certainly one of the reasons why economic growth under the Neoliberal model often amplifies economic inequality due to inequitable rises in financial power and its concentration in a few hands. In countries like Pakistan, where feudal traditions and patriarchal norms have seeped into institutions and policy-making, in the form property rights, inheritance laws and political power, the wealth generated by “economic growth” is almost always to the benefit of men, which will likely not lead to reducing the gender disparities, but at the same time gives a perception of “national growth.” In the long-run, this could prove to be among the roadblocks in achieving a stable and sustainable economy, and in creating a workforce which would be able to compete at the global level, reducing Pakistan’s worth and weight in the international system.

(This article continues on the discussion on Women Empowerment in Pakistan. The previous article illustrated that Pakistan is losing billions of dollars due to the gender disparities in its Labor Force.)

Dawar N. H. Butt
Dawar is currently involved with Youth organizations working for the Environment, Minority Rights, Gender Equality and Policy Reforms, in his home country, Pakistan. He is a Political and Social Policy Commentator, with an interest in Asian politics, history and culture.