Every year, March 8 is celebrated worldwide in the recognition of women’s political, economic and social achievements, and has been seen to revive efforts towards gender parity. However, this year’s theme #pledgeforparity clearly indicates that a greater commitment is needed to accelerate efforts towards gender equality. Pakistan is among the countries where gender parity is still a distant dream. Doubtless, Pakistan has made progress in passing legislation for protecting women’s rights. However, it still lacks infrastructure to implement the legislation. Despite there being a lot of legislation, there is rampant disapproval of women’s rights in the society. This forces one to wonder whether the state has met its responsibilities, or whether it has prioritised patriarchy.
Women’s position in Pakistani society has improved considerably in that they now have increased access to education, healthcare and media, yet their situation is still similar to their counterparts in other developing countries. Great gender inequality is reflected in the country’s social indicators in which women, rural women in particular, perform poorly.
Women constitute almost half of the total population of Pakistan, yet their participation in national economy portrays a dismal picture. Those who are in formal sector where they have registered jobs and draw salaries, are subjected to severe discrimination when it comes to the representation on an executive or management level. Although developed economies also suffer from this phenomenon, cultural barriers for Pakistani women make it an uphill task for them to be part of the management. Cultural convictions that women are only responsible for childcare and household management further complicate their lives.
In the informal sector where rural women’s contribution is very supportive of the economy, there exists a great disparity in their wages; their performance and circumstances are continuously affected by low wages, the monopoly of the landlord and insecurity as their work is not registered.
Most importantly, the state has so far not succeeded in countering the contradiction between the law and culture; the constitution ensures basic education for all citizens regardless of their gender, yet the state is still unable to provide this provision to all women because the prevalent culture discourages women’s education and employment. Therefore, even if improved laws and legislation are introduced, they are not going to benefit women. For example, the law ensures women’s right to property but how many women exercise this right?
There is now a clear law against child marriage, yet many young girls are still forced into marriage because people know that they will escape scrutiny. Moreover, legislation has been passed barring a second marriage without written permission of the first wife, yet men violate this law knowing that the woman will not endanger her survival which lies in living with the husband. Furthermore, men know that the state will not take any action against this.
Heinous crimes against women, such as honour killings, acid attacks and rape have also proved unassailable; it is reported that at least 55 acid attacks were made against women in 2015, but only 17 arrests were made in this connection.
This is where the state is failing; it is refusing, or at least condoning, to use its muscles against patriarchal structure. The state, being the most powerful social institution, can transform society and its perceptions whenever required. As a result, women remain deprived of what has been done for them.
This situation demoralises women and discourages them to raise their voices against oppression, knowing that nobody cares and that reporting will not bring relief to their lives. It is thus in their practical interest to accommodate patriarchy because the very system that exploits them, also provides them with food and shelter. Therefore, women’s liberation from men’s dominance – both in the public and the private sphere – is still a dream and a distant one.
Therefore, we will keep making calls for #pledgeforpartiy unless the state becomes adamant to address women’s issues seriously; concrete steps are needed to tackle political, legal and cultural barriers. But most importantly, the implementation of law is important because legislation without implementation doesn’t yield any fruition; exemplary punishment should be introduced so that heinous crimes against women such as acid attacks, rape, abuse and honour killings should be eradicated. It is essential to have a growing number of women on executive and managerial positions; this will not only allow women to have their voices heard but will also result in in a gender-balanced leadership. These women will be role models for other women and will inspire them to reach their goals.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2016.