Gender equality is smart economics

Published: March 7, 2012

The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation and founder of Kashf Microfinance Bank Limited based in Pakistan. She was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in 2005. She is a graduate of the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania and also holds a master’s in international and development economics from Yale University

I was recently visiting New York, and came across a very interesting statistic in the New York Times. Nordstrom, which is a well known American retail group gives out university scholarships every year — well this year 71 per cent of the merit-based scholarships were won by girls.

Women now represent half of the world’s university students, and that is the case in Pakistan as well. In 1993, 22 per cent of the student body in Pakistan comprised of women, while in 2011 the number had risen to 47 per cent according to the Higher Education Commission. There is a critical mass of educated females across the world, who are slowly and surely changing paradigms. This, of course, is the upside of the previous decade that we can all be proud of and need to celebrate.

The point remains how many of these female graduates are able to find jobs. There is no doubt that a country where 50 per cent of the population is left out of the labour force simply cannot progress, and estimates show that the cost of leaving women out of the economy can be as high as one per cent of annualised loss in gross domestic product. In many countries, gender inequality persists in terms of economic opportunities, earnings and productivity for women. Pakistan is no different in this respect: women comprise 75 per cent of the labour force in agriculture, essentially working as unpaid and unrecognised farm workers, while the female employment rate in industry and services is 12 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.

Economically, this translates into lower incomes and less market opportunities for female labour and the gains of education do not seem to permeate into better job options for women as a whole. There are several reasons behind the persistence of such disparities. Even though women have made phenomenal gains in higher education, the overall enrolment of girls in primary and secondary schools remains much lower than boys. Lack of access to education limits market opportunities for adult females, who then tend to seek self employment in the informal sector, where they end up working harder than men but earning less since they usually work in less profitable sectors.

In my work with female entrepreneurs in low-income communities, I have often come across many paradigm changers. These are women, who despite their lack of education or their lack of formal training have succeeded in incubating and growing their businesses. I remember the first time I met Parveen baji in a slum area of south Lahore. She was a petite, quiet woman with a deeply-lined face, which reflected years of endless struggle and belied her true age. Parveen had contemplated suicide many times, because of a husband who was a physical abuser and a marriage which had resulted in nine children. Life was hard and her lack of voice, agency and access to markets made it even harder. She wanted to change her life, but found both internal and external constraints that held her back.

Her own lack of belief in herself, combined with the time old notion that a woman’s earning is not blessed cowed her down. Her husband despite his extreme negligence was still the man of the house, he made the decisions and held complete sway over her and her children. In spite of her doubts, she decided to take a risk and start a business with a small loan after enrolling in a basic financial education course provided by Kashf. She began making beautiful quilted bed sets, which she first sold in her own community and later in other markets. Her earnings gave her respite from the past and allowed her to choose a different future for her children.

On a more macro level, we can learn several lessons from Parveen’s story. In order to promote women’s economic empowerment access to resources whether financial or capacity related becomes a prime driver. This needs to be combined with enhancing women’s access to markets, while reducing constraints that affect women disproportionately, for example, providing child care programmes, introducing career development programmes and promoting affirmative action across industries. There is also a need to equalise women’s voices within the households and increase their control over resources — these aspects need to be taken up through changes in policy and the law, while massifying access to education for both boys and girls. The enactments of the domestic violence act and the sexual harassment at the workplace bill are positive developments, and are backed by the fact that 22 per cent of the parliament comprises of women.

Both these laws certainly help to improve the constraints that women face within and outside their homes, however in the case of statutory changes it is implementation that matters and only time will tell how such laws change the environment for women in the work force. We as a country need to do much more for women than we have done in the past 65 years — the good news is we know what needs to be done.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • arshad jatoi
    Mar 7, 2012 - 11:16PM

    When women insist on gender equality then they must also contribute financially to the family.women can’t have it both ways,demanding equal treatment in everything but then not working and earning.those women who freeload off their husbands,brothers,fathers shoul not demand equal treatment until they also put food on the table and learn to fend for themselves also.It’s easy to raise demand for gender equality but to get it,women should also develop the mentality of earning their living and taking care themselves of their financial needs.

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  • Hamza Arshad
    Mar 7, 2012 - 11:53PM

    Kashaf is providing financial assistance to the women who are suppressed by cruel circumstances. They belong to the downtrodden section of the society and they, if supported, can work hard to be self-sufficient. It is good but the problem is with middle class women who, like men, search ‘white collar’ job. They shirk from hard work. What should be done for them? They are suffering but are not ready to step out of their self-drawn boundaries. Kashaf must take initiatives to encourage them and motivate them to shun old habits. All Sheesh Mehal of honor is not built on their shoulders.

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  • saif amjad
    Mar 8, 2012 - 12:08AM

    @arshad jatoi:

    Men are always supposed to pick up the cheque,even the supposedly well educated working women don’t think that they should pay for their expenses.Especially in the upper classes,the current trend is that the housewives sit easily at home all day long watching tv,while the cooks and housemaids do all the work,yet these same housewives demand that their husbands work themselves into the grave to provide them with all the money while in return these housewives don’t lift a finger all day long,just freeloading off the husband their entire lives.
    This mentality of free riding and free loading off husbands without working themselves is really despicable.

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  • beenish khan
    Mar 8, 2012 - 12:42AM

    pakistani women need to understand the value of working,having careers.If they don’t earn,they can bemoan as much as they want,they won’t ever get their rights.nobody gives anything to anyone on a golden platter.one has to make efforts,make sacrifices.
    there are too many MBA’s,MBBS pass girls in our country but they choose to sit and rot at home behind the chaar diwari.Although most of the students in medical universities today are women,most of them remain as MBBS pass and never become doctors.if women willingly throw away their lives at the demands of men ,then they leave themselves at the mercy of men.

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  • Ali Q
    Mar 8, 2012 - 5:59AM

    Men need to stop seeing women as glorified incubators.

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  • Armita
    Mar 8, 2012 - 5:59AM

    Great article. Very positive and encouraging.

    As a Pakistani woman, I feel the “blame” for women not being ambitious or driven enough is due to the cultural upbringing we are raised with. Think about it, majority of the girls are brought up under the notion that being married and finding a “nice” husband is the ultimate goal in life. Women being educated has just become a criteria for a good proposal, and not enough emphasis has been given on how they can utilize their education in a positive way.

    I see a slow, yet positive change coming though. But this change is a group effort, which starts from top-down. Raise you’re children with the idea that we should all aim to be productive members of our society. That should be the goal. Lets change the mindset.

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  • Mir Agha
    Mar 8, 2012 - 9:20AM

    From a pure economic pov, setting aside at least 50% of your population from being productive and efficient members of the national economy is the worst possible thing to do. This by no means is degrading female homemakers or their natural role in family households and their responsibilities as mothers, wives, and daughters. The fact is that women are strong enough to take up a role both inside and outside the house, if they choose to do so. Women are also more likely to invest in productive activities which ensure the stability of the household in the long-term. They also provide exponential benefits for the family if given a chance in the economy. Refer to what Jinnah said about women’s role in the nation. And no, this isn’t a debate about burka/no burka.

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  • usman butt
    Mar 8, 2012 - 3:16PM

    women and man are never equal,its a harsh fact.they can lead in different parts of life,but not equal from all perspective(also see lecture of Dr. Zakir naik). i m unable to understand the logic of this article,its just an attempt,just like always,to showoff their organization. Reducing poverty by receiving interest rate from 20 to 70 %….GOD

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  • Mar 8, 2012 - 3:17PM

    More women, more taxable serfs to gnaw upon.

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  • Ayesha
    Mar 8, 2012 - 3:45PM

    I agree with what Beenish said. Many women in urban Pakistan have degrees of MBA and MBBS but they have become the typical house wives. They have not started cottage industries or small clinic from home. Nor they use their education to go to less privalaged classes and teach them basic santitation, basic financial education course, english, urdu, maths or advice them on their health issues. Rather they watch TV, gossip and do shopping all the time. If each educated homemaker teaches atleast her army of maids these things herself things in Pakistan would improve more with regards to Poverty and basic Civic sense.

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  • Mr T
    Mar 8, 2012 - 4:57PM

    @arshad jatoi:
    Totally agreed with you sir. Women want to enjoy the perks of equality but do not want to share the responsibilities of equality. I remember participating in a gender mainstreaming workshop organised by my organization and by God if i wasn’t a chauvinist before that workshop, i did turn out a little bit chauvinistic after that because all such workshops degenerate into some sort of a man bashing club. Women openly abuse men whereas i can’t imagine being spared one breath in my body if i ever dared to insult a woman in such workshops. I strongly support only those women to work who participate in household running of affairs. Too many women in my organization work for just pocket money when that job could easily have been given to breadwinner member of a certain household (male or female).

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  • Umar Farooq Khawaja
    Mar 8, 2012 - 6:17PM

    This is not a simple question.On the one hand, I feel that it is a crime to gain an academic degree such as an MBA or an MBBS and then not utilize it. As the husband of a doctor, I have always been a supporter of my wife pursuing her career to the best of her ability (and not in her spare time).On the other hand, as a person living in the UK, in a society where most women work, one can see that a lot of children are neglected. Children in the UK aren’t only neglected because their mothers are working, but it is a major contributing factor. This can then result in a situation where while you have increased 50% of your workforce, you have also created a lot of extra social cost due to “bad parenting”.Then there’s another dimension to all this. By increasing the number of job applicants for the same pool of jobs, salaries reduce because according to basic economic theory when supply increases, while the demand remains the same, the price goes down. This will then ensure that women don’t have to work out of choice but out of necessity thereby worsening parenting issues; and it’s not like salaries in Pakistan are very high to begin with. They are probably one-tenth of what they need to be and one-twentieth in the worst cases.The real crux of the problem is that we measure our personal worth by money we are paid for it rather than the value of the work that we are doing. Until that changes, we will not arrive at a satisfactory solution, or indeed satisfaction.

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  • CAT
    Mar 9, 2012 - 12:09PM

    KASHF is one of the great success stories of our oft-lamented Pakistan. Express Tribune should highlight more such success stories (and believe me there are many) that give umeed to all of us. Late and great Dr Akhter Hameed Khan used to say that we must must build islands; Parveen Baji is one such island. We need millions more islands. Hats off to Roshaneh and to Parveen Baji.

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  • Mawali
    Mar 10, 2012 - 5:27AM

    Yes it is!

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  • Annum Saeed
    Mar 10, 2012 - 11:03AM

    @Hamza Arshad:
    Awareness is very important.. there is no access for women where they can raise for voice particularly in the poor areas.

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