Coming out of Dubai airport, it’s hard not to notice the long queue of pink-roofed taxis, driven by women. Over the last two decades, the United Arab Emirates has made remarkable progress in female labour force participation, surpassing countries like Turkey and Italy. While appreciating this paradigm shift, it is frustrating to compare the UAE with Pakistan, where only half a century ago, girls used to freely ride bicycles to their schools and colleges.
The recent brutal murder of the first woman taxi driver in Peshawar by her husband signifies the present-day challenges for our women. For whatever reasons, the incident threw a spanner in the dreams of millions of women who are aspiring to be productive members of society.
Incidentally, around the same time, the government of Pakistan announced that it would hold an investment conference to plan for 9 per cent GDP growth target. Currently, our GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) is $5,235, comparable to that of Sudan and worse than Congo, Myanmar and Nigeria. Low female labour force and economic participation remains a key contributor to our low GDP. The issue of economic gender parity, if addressed, can therefore become a catalyst for Pakistan’s future growth ambition.
Currently, 30% of our female labour force works from home, while the remaining prefers not to travel far for work. Ironically, labour force participation is also quite low for women with a high level of education, with only 25% of women with university degrees working outside their homes. A number of factors, including mobility restrictions, cultural and social norms and security reasons, contribute to these dismal statistics.
The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 is an eye-opener, where Pakistan is ranked the second-worst country in the world, amongst 144 countries. We are only better than Yemen but worse than Islamic countries like Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Although Pakistan’s gender gap score declined on many counts since 2006, the most significant drop took place in case of economic participation and opportunity. Much of this decline can be attributed to low female labour force participation and disparity in earned income.
So what’s the impact of this disparity and the lost potential for growth? Despite an increase of almost 11 percentage points since 1990, our female labour force participation still stands at an abysmal 25%. In comparison, it’s 83% for men.
In a dream scenario with reasonable level of unemployment, if we somehow achieve male-female parity in labour force participation, productivity and gender wage gap, the GDP per capita can very well jump to the level of countries like Morocco and the Philippines. With the present trend of declining economic participation however, we can never achieve this goal. But even if this changes and we somehow trail the world average of improvement in economic participation, it can take us 200+ years to fully bridge this gap.
More realistically however, if the female labour force participation increases to 45%, our GDP can match that of Vietnam, transitioning Pakistan from lower-middle income to a middle-income country. Having more women working would also increase household incomes and contribute towards improved human development for children.
The countries that have done this include Turkey, for instance, it has made remarkable improvement in its economic participation parity and has closed the gap by 6% in merely 5 years. Countries like these should serve as examples to us. This however is easier said than done and need a concerted effort on many fronts ranging from education, health, security, transport, workplace improvements, etc. We must however realise that without reducing the economic gender gap, the 9% GDP growth rate will remain an elusive dream.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2018.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.