“No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you.”
The founder of our country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was well aware of the importance of women’s role in the success of our nation as well as the lack of opportunities for them. During the inception of Pakistan, he spoke about the importance of women’s contribution in the development of the country. The quote above is not just metaphorical or ideological; when Jinnah made that statement (mentioned above) he followed it by saying: “We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.” He was literally speaking of women working side by side with men to build our nation and critiquing the culture that in some cases hinders them from doing so. However, seventy three years later, the hurdles towards equality that he described still exist despite the fact that much progress has been made in this regard. But as he forewarned, if these barriers are not taken down completely they will not only hinder women from achieving their full potential as human beings but rather stunt the growth of our nation.
Pakistan has made progress towards equal participation of both genders in economic development. The participation of female workforce has risen from 14% in 1997 to almost 22% in 2020.
While this growth shows that we are on the right track, we still rank at the bottom among countries with lowest female labour participation rate compared to men. According to World Economic Forum (WEF) Pakistan ranks 151st on the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, having closed only 56% of the gender gap. According to the report, conditions for women in Pakistan have generally remained stable but the gap remains cavernous in terms of economic participation and opportunities. For example, compared to 85% of men only a quarter of women work or are looking for work, only 18% of total income in the country is earned by women while only 46% of women are considered literate compared to 71% of men. Pakistan’s female labour force participation is currently at 25%, with only 5% of senior and leadership roles held by women.
As the Pakistani economy moves away from the agricultural sector into the service sector, the role of women is becoming ever more important. The service sector includes retail, hospitality, education, entertainment, finance, public administration, communication, tech, etc., all sectors that require abundant skilled human capital. For Pakistan, the growth rate of the service sector is higher than the growth rate of the agriculture and the industrial sector and accounts for more than 50% of GDP and little over one-third of total employment. The service sector also represents the fastest growing sector of the global economy, output, employment, value and trade. If Pakistan is to continue growing and be able to compete with global and regional economies, it simply cannot afford to lay waste 50% of its population’s skills in an era where human capital is the key to success.
When one speaks of women’s inclusion in the workforce, the age old argument of women actually contributing more as mothers and wives comes to mind. Women do contribute a vast amount of psychical, emotional and intellectual labor in the household, sometimes working outside the home as well as inside. However, not every woman is a wife or a mother, and not every woman aims to only be a caretaker in her lifetime. What the argument forgets is that women are human beings just like men with skills, talent and potential to offer to their country and the world. The debate about whether women can juggle the home and office is a vast one but one that can be settled through public policy and cultural change, like many countries already have.
Vietnam for example, was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1980s and is now considered to be one of the success stories of the region. A fascinating part of Vietnam’s journey to economic prosperity is the role of its women in the economy. Women in Vietnam, whilst following traditions and cultural practices have taken an equal if not greater role in the country's economic prosperity. Not only is about half of their workforce female, women tend to be more educated than their fellow male colleagues and many still take care of household responsibilities. It is common to see as many women on motorbikes as men on the streets of Vietnam and just as many go to work to earn a living and make their contribution towards the economy. What is most significant is that Vietnam follows a different approach than western countries towards its female workforce. The traditional role of the woman as a child bearer is accommodated rather than being penalised. For example, the government has encouraged equal participation in the workforce by legislating progressive labour standards regarding women. It has instituted gender policies that view women as both a mother/wife and as a worker. Chapter 10 of the 2020 Labour Code in Vietnam provides specific provisions concerning female employees. The government and private institutions have also been making efforts to provide daycares and more training to female employees since independence. Unique from other countries is the amount of maternity protection afforded to women in Vietnam. Pregnant employees are allowed to suspend or terminate contracts and afforded 6 months of maternity leave for each child and are guaranteed work after it. The government also specifically allows women to take a leave to take care of sick children, sexual health checkups and contraceptive appointments. Thus, the government continues to recognise the importance of women in its development whilst being cognizant of their roles as mothers and wives.
Vietnam is an interesting case study in what can be built beyond the western ideal. Since its inception the country was rife with economic, political and security problems but has since emerged as one of the largest exporters in the region. Moreover, their policy and attitude towards women in the workforce is one of the balancing tradition with modernity rather than choosing one over the other. Like Vietnam, Pakistan also can take advantage of the 100 million workers by providing them with equal opportunity. Especially since the future of the Pakistani economy rests in the service sector and COVID-19 has made work from home more acceptable, women need to be encouraged to learn skills in emerging sectors such as IT, social media marketing, content writing and customer services. Acquiring these skills has now become as simple as watching YouTube videos, enrolling in edX or Virtual University courses. Thus, equal participation in the workforce is not only practical but also desirable. In today’s internet age what is stopping women from contributing to our prosperity are our cultural restraints.
In 2021, we as a nation stand at a crossroads. We can and should be competing with the rest of the world in the booming service sector. After all, the investment required is not that of millions of dollars into infrastructure or projects but rather one of education and equality of opportunity. However, if half of our population is not engaged in these efforts, we stand to lose to those who do. HH
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