OPINION: Mind the gap

LONDON (Dawn/ANN) - The women we celebrate are exceptions.

Another index, another appalling ranking. Pakistan’s latest embarrassment comes in the form of the second-worst rating in the world for gender parity on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016. Pakistan ranks 143rd out of 144 countries, bettering only war-torn Yemen in terms of gender equality. The low grade indicates that Pakistan is doing poorly on all gender indicators: educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political empowerment. 

The ranking may surprise those who celebrate the great strides Pakistani women make every day. They, not our men, are the ones winning Nobel Peace Prizes and Oscars. They are slated to lead political dynasties, win human rights awards, staff our malls, and play a greater role in law enforcement. 

But the women we celebrate are exceptions not representatives. Indeed, many of them owe their success to the typically poor circumstances of other Pakistani women — they are notable because they have somehow survived, documented or mitigated the deplorable condition of women in this country. Rather than deploy amazing individuals as a bulwark against criticism, we should acknowledge and address the brutal reality of the gender gap. 

Here’s the rub: any discussion of gender issues suffers from being considered clichéd, liberal posturing. Gender equality is thought of as the exclusive domain of women’s rights NGOs. In many newsrooms, young female reporters are asked to work on gender rights stories as a way to keep them occupied while the men get on with reporting the ‘hard’ news. Political parties tinker with women’s rights legislation as a way to save face when representing Pakistan at international fora. 

This attitude has to change — we cannot let almost 50 per cent of our population languish in ill health, illiterate, jobless and disenfranchised. The circumstances damage not only the women affected, but our society and economy as a whole. 

The cynical argument in favour of closing the gender gap focuses on economic equality and the fact that parity could add billions of dollars to growing economies. The more persuasive argument is that if women thrive, everyone wins. 

Empowered, economically independent women are better members of communities, investing primarily in health, education and safety. Educated, healthy women raise educated, healthy children — factors such as antenatal health have major long-term impacts on the well-being of the next generation (even those misogynists who would prefer to disregard the status of women should be concerned about how their degradation will impact the male soldiers and CEOs of tomorrow). 

Politicians and policymakers should also realise that adopting gender-sensitive frameworks when it comes to service delivery does not mean catering exclusively to women — all of society will benefit. Take the example of female workforce participation; a major deterrent in Pakistan today is the lack of safe, reliable public transport. Investing in such infrastructure will hardly be to the benefit of women alone. 

Recognising how acute the gender gap is, and how urgently it needs to be addressed, will help prepare for changes in Pakistani society. The rapid pace of urbanisation demands double income households, a larger care economy and greater gender diversity in all professional roles (whether that be male nurses or female software engineers). At present, women in urban environments are less likely to work (and by extension less likely to access resources such as education and healthcare). This is because cities are deemed too dangerous for women to navigate without supervision, and because few women have the skill sets that urban environments demand. Training and enabling all genders to compete and flourish in our growing cities will help ensure fewer households fall into poverty. 

The problem is clear: our country cannot progress while its women regress. But what’s to be done?  

To start, Pakistan probably needs more sex disaggregated data to understand the true nature of the gender gap and its drivers. As Melinda Gates put it, “we cannot close the gender gap without first closing the data gap”. Blank spaces in the WEF report point at how much more information is required to understand the challenge. 

The other solution proffered is to have more women in power. Unfortunately in Pakistan, women in politics are defined by their familial, ethnic or linguistic identity rather than their gender — they win seats to serve elite interests rather than champion women’s rights. 

A better option would be to give ordinary women a greater voice. This demands a two-pronged approach: on the one hand, check violence against women so that they’re not afraid of speaking out; on the other, give them more tools (literacy, mobile phones, media access etc) to be heard. Once women start to ask to have their needs met, it will be harder to ignore them. 

The writer is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at ;huma.yusuf@gmail.comTwitter: @humayusuf

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