A quiet revolution by women in Pakistan

Published: July 1, 2012
The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The term ‘a quiet revolution’ sounds like an oxymoron, since revolutions normally produce a lot of noise. But when something entirely unexpected happens that, too, can be called a revolutionary event even if it is not noisy. That is precisely what women in Pakistan are experiencing. A significant number of them are leaving their homes and entering the workforce. The numbers involved are large enough to make a difference not only to the women’s overall welfare, but it will profoundly affect the way Pakistani society will function, the way its economy will run and the manner in which its political order will evolve. This change is coming about as a result of development in three major areas: education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Let us begin with education. There is a widespread belief that women are faring poorly in receiving education. That impression is correct to some extent. The overall rate of literacy for women is low; much less than that for men which is also not very high. Although the Government of Pakistan is a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the country is far from achieving them. Attaining universal literacy for both boys and girls by the year 2015 was one of the MDGs. With literacy rates standing at 70 per cent for boys and only 45 per cent for girls in 2010, Pakistan will miss these goals by a vast margin.

However, when speaking of a revolution, the reference is to the growth rate in women’s enrolments in institutions of higher learning. Here, the recent trends are extraordinary — in fact revolutionary. It is interesting and puzzling that some of the numbers used here to make this point have not appeared in the country’s discourse about economic and social issues. Over the last 17 years, from 1993 to 2010, the number of girls enrolled in primary education has increased from 3.7 million to 8.3 million. This implies a growth rate of 6.7 per cent a year, about two and half times the rate of increase in the number of girls entering the primary school-going cohort. However, even with this impressive rate of increase, it is worrying that girls still account for less than one half — the proportion was 44.3 per cent in 2010 — of the total number of children in school.

It is in higher education that girls have made a most spectacular advance. The numbers of girls attending what are described as ‘professional colleges’ has increased in the same 17-year period, at a rate of eight per cent per annum. In 1993, there were only 100,400 girls attending these institutions. Their number increased to more than 261,000 in 2010. There are now more girls in these institutions than boys. Their proportion in the total population of these colleges has increased from 36 per cent to 57 per cent in this period.

It is attendance in the universities, though where the real revolution has occurred. There were less than 15,000 girls in these institutions in 1993; their number increased to 436,000 in 2010. The proportion of girls is approaching the 50 per cent mark with the rate of growth in their numbers an impressive 28 per cent a year. While a very large number of girls drop out between the primary stage and the stage of professional and university education, the numbers completing higher education is now much greater. Three quarter of a million girls are now leaving the institutions of higher learning every year.

In education, it is the numbers that make a revolution. Given the rate of increase in the number of girls attending these institutions, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that by 2015 a million girls will be ready every year to enter the modern sectors of the economy. That has already begun to happen and here the statistics on participation in the workforce don’t tell the complete story. Official statistics still indicate very low levels of women’s participation in the workforce. According to the official data, only 16 per cent of women were working compared to 50 per cent of men. The rate of women’s participation in the workforce is higher in the countryside than in urban areas — 19 per cent as against eight per cent. But these statistics don’t paint the real picture. A lot of the work that women do, either in the households or in the work place, does not get recorded. This is not only the case for developing countries. The same happens in more developed economies that keep a better record of what people do for living. In Pakistan, for instance, women are very actively engaged in the livestock sector but that goes mostly unnoticed in official accounting.

There are a number of sectors in modern areas of the economy where women now make up a significant part of the workforce. These include the traditional areas where educated women have been active for decades. These include teaching and medicine. However, more recently, as the number of women with high levels of skills increased, they have become players in sectors such as banking, communications, law and politics. Women also now makeup a significant proportion of the workforce in companies engaged in IT work. Some IT experts have estimated that in their sector, there are tens of thousands of women working in what they call ‘cottage businesses’. These are women with good computer skills, who are working from their homes undertaking small contractual work for members of their families or their friends who are living and working abroad. Some estimates suggest that more than a billion dollars worth of work gets done in these informal establishments. These are, by large, one-person shops that receive payments through informal transactions. However, it is the entry of women in the entrepreneurial field where the real revolution is occurring. I will take up that subject in this space next week.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Huma
    Jul 1, 2012 - 10:16PM

    some good news finally, because ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’. :)


  • Max
    Jul 1, 2012 - 11:03PM

    Yes! there is lot of social change that is taking place but it is more so in the urban settings and less in the countryside. However, we also need to keep in mind that the popular perceptions of society have not changed much, be it preference for a male child, male machoism, arrogance and sexism at workplace, and not to mention the popular belief that woman belongs to her in-laws, at home etc, so be treated differently.
    Second, We should also not forget late Myron Weiner’s seminal term “Modernity and traditionalism co-exisitng side by side where we see change in some areas but traditional restrictions in others. It will take a while but if the religious element did not put everything in reverse order.
    I will be little careful in calling it “revolution” as the revolutions are all inclusive and change is holistic and at 180 degree. Regrettably, we are not there yet.

    Third, social change is also disruptive in nature as the old values erode and new take their place thus generating the social tensions ( late Karl Deutsch), so don’t let your seat-belts loosen. On the whole I understand your quest and appreciate your straightforwardness.


  • Alami Musafir
    Jul 1, 2012 - 11:06PM

    Right on Huma, Pakistani women rock ! Thank you Mr Burki, for such heartening news.


  • abhi
    Jul 1, 2012 - 11:29PM

    great news indeed! if paksitani women get educated, that will be really great step towards progress. Most of the problem (illitracy, increasing population, bigotery etc.) will go away if women start asserting their rights in the society.


  • Hasan
    Jul 1, 2012 - 11:41PM

    “There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.” (Quaid-e-Azam)

    Alhamdulillah, very encouraging article – and perhaps one tiny, tiny step towards the dream of our beloved founding father.



  • geeko
    Jul 1, 2012 - 11:43PM

    Biologically not one, but yes, God bless all women. :-)
    Genuinely “entertaining” comment, hats off, but I do believe there’s a “quiet revolution” the author’s talking about : as you rightfully pointed out, the “revolution” is mainly taking place in the urban middle-class homes, but the “privileged” women who do witness the change will first control the cultural apparatus (literature, cinema, …) and it will, in the long term, through “mediaticized” symbols, make a definitive change in the surrounding collective social consciousness – so even that limited change will have wider social repercussions than expected.

    And surely “traditional” values, which are the outcomes of the sexual differentiation between both genders, will in their turn too bring moral revolutions in the society… the follow generations of mard from Pakistan for instance will not have the chance to be mama’s boy, typical patriarchal phenomenon, and that’s the worst… poor them. :P


  • gp65
    Jul 2, 2012 - 12:36AM

    As an Indian woman, really happy to read this. More power to you Pakistani ladies. Good luck.


  • BlackJack
    Jul 2, 2012 - 1:08AM

    Good news and I hope that this trend continues. However, given that all numbers are in absolutes, would be useful if the writer had provided the percentages of girl child population in 1993 and 2010 to understand how significant this growth actually is (instead of vs male students). In 1993 the population was 125 mn and in 2010 was around 185 mn, and so based on the high TFR and average mortality rate, the number of school-going children would have probably doubled anyway.


  • MEI
    Jul 2, 2012 - 1:33AM

    Although education is itself extremely valuable, we should be careful not to confuse increased education with increased empowerment or even workforce participation.

    For example, university classes in the U.S. reached their 50/50 gender proportions back in the 1980s. Graduation rates of women from universities in the U.S. is currently 53%. However, the presence of women in the upper level management of organizations in the U.S. is still only a fraction of that percentage.

    In Pakistan, we should use this example as a precaution. Education is great, and perhaps the biggest hurdle to cross, but workplace policies and culture will need to keep up.


  • Ali tanoli
    Jul 2, 2012 - 1:54AM

    More expencsive things , poverty grows and hard to survive on one person income thats a reson women coming out of there houses and its a shame not good thing at all and factory owners abused and less salary.


  • Jul 2, 2012 - 2:32AM

    Readers of this story might like to learn more about Humaira Awais Shahid, a Pakistani journalist, activist and lawmaker whose work draws from Islam. It’s from Latitude News. We follow foreign news that parallels U.S. developments. We see lots of stories out of Pakistan (and Turkey btw) where traditional values are bumping up against more progressive developments.



  • Singh
    Jul 2, 2012 - 5:36AM

    Nation can achieve higher ground with equal participation by women only.
    Good luck to mother, daughter,sisterpf Pakistani nation


  • Naeem Siddiqui
    Jul 2, 2012 - 7:46AM

    Thanks Dr. Shahid for highlighting the good things in Pakistan


  • Falcon
    Jul 2, 2012 - 8:26AM

    Really great news. In fact, one of the growing concern I am beginning to see now in cities as well as rural areas is that there are too many educated women and not enough educated men. All in all, it is a great development and will determine contours of the society for decades to come.


  • Jul 2, 2012 - 9:53AM

    With their increasing numbers in the workforce, women are now moving into the executive ranks as well. Women now make up 4.6% of board members of Pakistani companies, a tad lower than the 4.7% average in emerging Asia, but higher than 1% in South Korea, 4.1% in India and Indonesia, and 4.2% in Malaysia, according to a February 2011 report on women in the boardrooms.



  • evil
    Jul 2, 2012 - 2:46PM

    a WIN over islamic regulations and inequality towards women!!


  • BlaaardyCivilians
    Jul 2, 2012 - 3:34PM

    Most of the growth rates pointed out by the author do not present the true picture unless compared to the population growth.
    Suppose the number of females in primary schools has grown at the same rate as the female population, this means that there has been little or no improvement over the last decade.
    We need to do a LOT more before we can truly say that our womenfolk are empowered.


  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Jul 2, 2012 - 4:15PM

    Please read this article along with another article in today’s Express Tribune;


    Which says that Pakistan still remains the worst place in the world for women.


  • geeko
    Jul 2, 2012 - 5:20PM

    Please, don’t play the “Islamic oppression” card : Muslim women who reclaim more rights, if anything, do it under the Islamic umbrella and in fact use Islam’s history, like the prophet (PBUH)’s first wife, Khadijah, was literally a businesswoman.


  • Farid Rahman
    Jul 2, 2012 - 6:01PM

    A very encouraging analysis. I wish there was more statistical data to assess the factors behind this “quite revolution”. I must commend Mr. Burki for ihis nsight in uncovering interesting social and economic developments occurring in the country , which otherwise may go unnoticed, and which provide hope for better times lie ahead.


  • Tanveer Khadim
    Jul 2, 2012 - 6:04PM

    Women Entrepreneurs of Pakistan need more support; for instance easy access to loans, access to strategic business development trainings, guidance in product design, business development, professional assistance for marketing purpose and training in managerial skills. Right now women face a lot of difficulties in setting up a small business such as lack of finance, lack of government facilities, registration problem, non-cooperative govt departments, income and sales taxes etc.

    On urgent basis, Government of Pakistan should come forward with enhanced policies, advisory and consultancy services for better chances of investment to create enormous and equal opportunities for women in urban as well as rural areas. Govt should set up financial institutions (apart from women bank) especially for women to ensure easy access to credit on soft, long terms.


  • Adeel
    Jul 2, 2012 - 7:46PM

    Indeed the article is very encouraging but i want to highlight an important issue here vis a vis women education. Since i am supporter of women education but what irritates me is to see that many families where educated females are working they are not in their good books. they develop jealousy, competition and self dependency in them and ultimately undermine the other relations. It is high time women must get education to serve and strengthen the relations instead of thinking men a weak and second creature. RegardsRecommend

  • antanu g
    Jul 2, 2012 - 9:17PM

    There are always good, encouraging news …but sadly your media concentrates on bad news only….very unlike Indian media.


  • Jul 2, 2012 - 10:53PM

    @Rajendra Kalkhande: “Pakistan still remains the worst place in the world for women.”

    An Indian girl aged 1-5 years is 75% more likely to die than an Indian boy, making India the most deadly place for newborn baby girls, according to data released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA). The data for 150 countries over 40 years shows that India and China are the only two countries in the world where female infant mortality is higher than male infant mortality.



  • Future_of_Pak
    Jul 4, 2012 - 7:36AM

    All patriarchal societies have made life tough for women, including every other dominant religion around these days. In fact, over the past couple of centuries, a majority of women in industrialized nations have suffered a lot as well. Other than tribal societies, I really can’t think of many gender-equal “developed” societies. So, seriously, I would leave “Islam-bashing” out of this. Kind of childish and bitter methinks.


  • faraz
    Jul 4, 2012 - 4:03PM

    I agree with the author. I see girls outperforming boys at school, college and university levels. Despite being good students, their performance at jobs is substantially lower than men but then again, we are talking about women who definitely can’t put in as many hours as men can!


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