Zafar Khan Safdar
PAKISTAN is a developing country and most of its population lives in undesirable circumstances. A large number of people in our country do not have proper place to live, this miserable condition has given birth to a large number of beggars and needy people to survive on the charities. The economic condition of an average individual is not encouraging. Poverty, hunger and unemployment have afflicted a large section of population. Budget debates on development come and go, but poverty remains despite the rhetoric of economic objectives being to reduce poverty. The emphasis on large investments on economic infrastructure and the limited expenditure on education and health in the budget are reasons for this skepticism. Overall economic growth no doubt reduces poverty, yet the trickledown effect could be inadequate.
A study on poverty has brought Pakistan face to face with a reality which says every third Pakistani is caught in the ‘poor bracket’ i.e. some 61.7 million out of a total population of 208 million subsist below the poverty line. Lower per capita incomes make it extremely difficult for poor to save and invest, a condition that perpetuates low productivity and low incomes. Furthermore, rapid population growth also quickly absorbs increase in per capita real income and thereby negates the possibility of breaking out of the underdevelopment circle. This burden of poverty is put heavily on the female population which is 50% of the total population of Pakistan, most of whom are neglected and under-nourished.
In the past few years, it has been experienced that income earning opportunities are few and far between for the poor women of both rural and urban areas. Few of them have learnt vocational skills and often seek additional income by making and selling local handicrafts, but lack proper linkages to market these products. Employment opportunities are scarce and real earnings have declined in the last decade. Majority of our poor women also lack all of the basic human, physical and productive assets and have limited or no access to essential social services. The severe economic pressure on families is also a constraint in improving their health and sending their children to school. Unless these women are not empowered, the country won’t be able to remove gender inequality.
How can we financially empower the poor women of Pakistan? This question is asked in different ways, sometimes focusing on making adjustments to existing systems, sometimes by considering whether to introduce particular programs or policies. Women’s empowerment is heavily dependent on many different variables that include geographical location, educational status, social status and age. Policies on women’s empowerment exist at the national, provincial, and local levels in many sectors, including health, education, economic opportunities, gender-based violence and political participation. However, there are significant gaps between policy advancements and actual practices at the community level. One key factor for the gap in implementation of laws and policies to address discrimination, economic disadvantages and violence against women at the community level is the largely patriarchal structure that governs the community and households in much of Pakistan. As such, women and girls have restricted mobility, access to education, access to health facilities and lower decision-making power and experience higher rates of violence.
The past decades have witnessed a steadily increasing awareness of the need to empower women through measures to increase social, economic and political equity and broader access to fundamental human rights, improvement in nutrition, basic health and education. Along with awareness of the subordinate status of women has come the concept of gender as an overarching socio-cultural variable, seen in relation to other factors, such as race, class, age and ethnicity. Gender is not synonymous with women, nor is it a zero-sum game implying loss for men; rather, it refers to both women and men, and to their status, relative to each other. Gender equality refers to that stage of human social development at which the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not be determined by the fact of being born male or female, in other words, a stage when both men and women realize their full potential.
More recently, the attention has shifted towards making them masters of their own destiny, with providing them skills to earn their livelihood. We need organizations that must contribute to sustainable development, aiming to empower women through social mobilization and institution building. Traditionally, Pakistan’s social protection system includes several social assistance programs of limited coverage. A recent review made by South Asian Research Foundation (SARF) showed that in Pakistan, safety net programs are fragmented and often duplicative. These programs have limited coverage, covering approximately 10-13% of the total population as compared to a poverty rate of about 37%. These programs are poorly targeted. The study further reveals inadequate institutional arrangements for multi-sectoral orientation of social protection agenda and low capacity in implementation and monitoring and evaluation (M&E).
A considerable investment is needed to ensure that safety net programs are able to overcome these constraints and efficiently target the poor women. We need to adopt a national targeting formula so as to identify and strengthen its implementation through National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). We need to economically rehabilitate poor women through skill training, training in demand based trades, market-based exploration and ensure their financial security through these skills, resulting in improving their basic health. We need to focus on modern skills, trades and techniques, with marketing opportunities for poor women folk both in rural and urban Pakistan. This will not only to improve the financial activities of poor women, but it will also improve capacity building and explore market for the skilled vulnerable. There is no tool for development more effective then the empowerment of women. Let’s empower them to add to the future of Pakistan and to live a dignified life.
— The writer, a civil servant, is based in Islamabad.
Zafar Khan Safdar