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State refusing to commit to women’s rights as gender gap continues to widen in Pakistan

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Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari blasted a recently released report that declared Pakistan the second worst country in the world in terms of gender equality, saying the statistics shown in the report about the South Asian country were “incorrect”.

Global Gender Gap Index 2018’ report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), put Pakistan at the 148th slot out of a total of 149 countries. All of the four worst performing states in the world are Muslim, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen joining Pakistan at the bottom of the pile.

The Gender Gap Index gauges the gender gap in four domains: economic opportunity, education, health and political empowerment.

Generously, however, Mazari did concede that gender inequality does exist in Pakistan, but maintained that the report “exaggerated” the data. She also cited Saudi Arabia, and questioned how Pakistan could rank below the kingdom. Someone needs to tell the human rights minister that neither is Saudi Arabia any benchmark with which Pakistan should gauge itself, nor has she read the WEF report properly. The parameters are clearly defined, and Pakistan’s position thoroughly explained.

Pakistan has only managed to close 55 percent of the gender gap, which pales in front of other regional countries – Sri Lanka has managed 68 percent, Bangladesh 72 percent – reaffirming Pakistan’s lowly position in South Asia.

Pakistan ranks 145th on health and survival and 146th on economic participation and opportunity. Pakistan fares much better in political empowerment, ranked 97 in the world – as epitomised by the fact that the country’s human rights minister is a woman.

Other areas of progress include, wage equality and education attainment. However, progress here is a strictly relative term, which means that even in areas where Pakistan is faring better, the chasing pack is moving more swiftly and many countries are expected to overtake Pakistan in the next few years.

A major handicap for Pakistan is the population, which increases 1.93pc every year. This is why despite the relative development in the factors that WEF measures, regression at large remains. A large chunk of this is in the workplace, along with health and education sectors, with professional women especially affected. Representation is especially low in science and technology.

Pakistan are among the six countries were the gap between men and women holding senior positions at work is over 90%. The others are Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon and Syria. Less than 7 percent managerial positions in Pakistan are held by women.

Pakistan’s ranking as the second worst country on gender equality was a repeat of 2017, where the country was identically placed – that time 143rd out of 144. That also means that the country continues to hold its position as South Asia’s worst. Pakistan’s maintained a ranking of 143 between 2015 and 2017, with rankings of 141 and 135 in 2014 and 2013 respectively.

The rankings show that Pakistan’s position is worsening, and that too in a larger pool of countries. The country was ranked 112 out of 115 in 2006. On the scale ranging from 0 to 1, where the latter signifies parity, Pakistan scored 0.546, with the female to male ratio in the country’s population being 1.06.

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While there are major problems in Pakistan, what makes them especially stick out is the fact that the other countries, even those ranked near the bottom, are improving at a much faster rate than Pakistan.

‘Violence against women a major problem’

Speaking about the gender disparity in the country, Senator Krishna Kumari said that violence against women remains a major problem.

“Honour killings, rape, abduction, child marriages… violence against women is rampant across the country and across all communities,” she said.

“Since I have been elected on the women’s seat, when I speak I do so on behalf of all women, and I strive to work on the wide array of issues that impact women all over the country. However, yes since I belong to Thar, I am especially focused on my own region, where a lot of work needs to be done in the education and health sectors, where women are especially lagging.”

Another prominent example of violence and coercion is the forced conversion of under aged Hindu girls, primarily in Sindh. Kumari says the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013 is in place and tackles the issue.

“Underage marriage is an issue that affects women from all communities. This is why we have the child marriage act in place to ensure that no one under the age of 18 gets married. But yes its implementation still needs a lot of work.”

‘Resources needed to escape patriarchy’

Aisha Sarwari, cofounder Women’s Advancement Hub and author of Navigating Pakistani Feminism: Fight by Fight underlines the class divide behind Pakistan’s consistent low ranking on the gender index.

“People making policies on gender don’t face the consequences of bad policy. They don’t have to use public transportation where women are routinely groped, they don’t study at campuses where there is abuse of power and they don’t have to deal with dowry abuse or marital rape either. The people making policy on women are often rich and landed Sunni Muslim men,” she says.

Sarwari has great aspirations from Shireen Mazari. “If the way she has raised her daughter anything to go by, madam minister believes in freedom of expression, freedom to offend and freedom to disturb the comfortable. I do however believe that she alone cannot change status quo. She is fierce and can push agendas through for sure, but her hawkish approach is needed on righting the wrongs, not defending them,” she says.

“We no longer need leaders that tout national interest. We need people who conclusively undertake and amplify research on what the wrongs are. I hope that along with her bold, she is also truthful. Things are hardly pro-women at the helm. That requires more humility, less bravado.”

Sarwari has a three step advice for the state to address the growing gender disparity. “Immediately change the rhetoric at the top. Women are referred to in the passive. As home makers and mothers. Women are not a monolith,” she says.

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“Secondly, reject a theocratic approach to solving violence against women. I feel like the appeal to those who violate women is to remind them that it is immoral. What we instead need is to punish them, invariably via the law of the land. The law should be blind.”

“Lastly, expand programs that expand women’s digital literacy programs and the financial inclusion programs tied to them. For women to escape patriarchy and oppression they need to have resources. Digital revolutions can provide that fix sooner than later. In today’s transforming world, digital literacy is as important as literacy, possibly more.”

‘Wish we had a women’s fund instead of a dam fund’

Veteran human rights activist and senior member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Salima Hashmi says a strong political commitment is needed. “Even though there is a lot of lip service, we are not willing to do anything about it. Right now the highest number of out of school girl students is the second highest in Pakistan,” she says.

“Then there is health. The number of women dying in child birth, infant mortality, health of girl children… all these things translate into how the state treats its women. Women are clearly not a priority in Pakistan. Let’s not forget there are areas in this country where women aren’t being allowed to vote.

Hashmi says all political parties are guilty of allowing the gender gap to grow. “Not one, all of them. This is not a state that is committed to gender equality, as we can see in the budget. Also, look at the way the cabinets are. The Punjab cabinet is a disgrace, there is no other word for it. Even look at the federal cabinet. It tells you the mindset immediately.

“It’s not surprising because the political parties, the social order, the religious order, none of these is supportive towards women. When you celebrate December 25 as the founding father’s birthday, you should hang your head in shame because one of the main things he talked about was the advancement of women.”

Hashmi reiterates that progressive legislation is needed to address the gender disparity. “There has been some legislation. Some right moves have been made against sexual harassment, child marriage [restraint] act, but the implementation doesn’t go far enough. And I know water is going to be a major issue for Pakistan, but I wish we had a women’s fund instead of a dam fund.”

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