May 30, 2010

GDP in perspective

Higher inflation and unemployment, culminating in a decline in real income of households have altered intra-family consumption patterns

By Laila Azhar

Growth of Pakistan's economy has been decelerated in recent years. In particular, the manufacturing sector has confronted a number of internal as well as external challenges that caused negative growth during 2008-09. Though, the impact of a weakened economy on employment opportunities, in general, has been rather limited, apparently, its impact on women during the present economic crisis has been disproportionately more intense leading to their social isolation, psychological trauma, reduced level of nutrition, school drop out of girls, and incidents of abandonment of children and suicides.

In Pakistan, traditionally participation of women in the labour force has remained low. The social paradigm of the country continues to play a very important part in preventing female participation in the workforce. The existing paradigmatic structure determined by the feudalistic mindset discourages women's empowerment including employment and considers it a socially reprehensible phenomenon. The slight increase noticed in female employment ratios is due to the expansion of the informal sector, spread of education, urban living, and the growth of a number of civil society organisations working for female development programmes.

Female participation in economic activities in the agricultural sector in rural areas has always been supplementary to male participation. In urban areas, on the other hand female participation has been limited to a lower cadre work force, both in offices and factories. Gender discrimination still persists and male employees of offices and factories would hesitate to accept a female as their superior, and rarely as the chief executive. This makes it absolutely necessary to work for promoting women's employment. The focus, therefore, needs to be on comprehensively addressing the multifaceted challenges confronted in mainstreaming female labour force participation.

Women's complete integration into the economy is a desirable goal both for equity and efficiency reasons. The equity aspect implies that labour market participation of women will improve their relative position within the economy. It will also increase overall economic efficiency and enhance the development potential of the country.

To take full advantage of this population dividend, Pakistan has to productively engage not only its male youth but also the female population which constitute almost half of its population. International comparisons indicate that Pakistan has lost out particularly in terms of export competitiveness due to low rates of female participation especially in industrial activities. There is evidence of the 'discouraged worker effect' in countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Iran, where high female unemployment rates are accompanied by low labour force participation rates. This effect arises when high unemployment rates lead to withdrawal of workers from the labour force.

In Pakistan, the overall labour force participation rate remains low, ranging around 50 percent, with a gradual increase in recent years. Interestingly, though the labour force participation rate for men has declined over the last four decades to 82 percent currently, it has increased for women from a very low level of 9 percent in 1971-72 to almost 22 percent in 2007-08. This trend indicates that the overall gender gap in labour force participation rates is declining in Pakistan. However, it continues to remain very low, with over 78 percent of women of productive age out of the labour force. In terms of numbers, the ratio of male to female workers is currently about 41.

The structure of female employment is almost 74 percent of female workers in Pakistan are engaged in agriculture, mainly in activities related to livestock. Among those women who work in the urban areas, over 28 percent are associated with textile, wearing apparel and leather industries, 20 percent in social and related community services, 16 percent in agriculture, livestock and hunting, and 13 percent in household services. Overall, the share of female employment in the formal sector of the economy is low, at only about 7 percent, and declining. There is a similar pattern of decline in the informal sector.

Another striking conclusion is related to the fundamental problem in the Pakistani context of the weak link between education and employment. While women are entering higher educational institutions in large numbers this is not being followed by subsequent entry into the labour force. The limited entry of highly educated females into employment highlights potentially strong gender discrimination in the labour market.

A discussion of female labour force participation cannot be completed without emphasizing two important issues. The first is the extent to which the increase in labour force participation is overstated due to the inclusion of 'unpaid family workers' and the second, the degree to which the extent of participation is understated due to the exclusion of women employed in marginal activities.

On the other hand, the labour force participation rate almost doubles with the inclusion of women engaged in subsistence activities. Compared to men, therefore, women are more involved in unpaid family work, or in unpaid or low paid or marginal economic activities. Women at work in Pakistan have largely been unable to convert employment into a means of social and economic empowerment.

Pakistan is either a signatory or has ratified various international conventions and declarations committing itself to improve gender inequalities and inequities. In order to ensure a conducive social environment, domestic legislation has to be made at par with its international commitments. Unfortunately, there exist no constitutional provisions which make these international commitments binding upon the judiciary.

The absence of essential pre-requisites continues to impair any serious and sustained efforts required for the development of society and women's empowerment. The existing legislation is limited in its extent to specific workers, whereas, the conventions are broader in their application than the existing domestic legislation. The situation for women is complicated due to their socio-economic status. Complicated legal procedures compounded by gender biases of judiciary and law enforcing agencies, delays, high cost of court expenses and corruption of the judiciary makes it extremely difficult for women to access social justice.

The government needs to establish 'Legal Aid Committees' in industrial areas, which employ female lawyers. These can help create awareness among workers regarding their rights and entitlements and litigate on their behalf, thus making access to justice a reality for women. The Legal Aid Committees can function under the supervision and control of the Zila Ombudsman/administrator. The women of Pakistan continue to be discriminated socially and legally with many constitutional provisions constantly challenged and violated. Discouraged from filing any litigation for their rights they continue to be suppressed.

At the international level there are declarations like the United Nations Declaration on Violence Against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Beijing Declaration etc. The Beijing Declaration (1995) brought into focus violence against women and the Platform for Action adopted included provisions on sexual harassment at the workplace. Pakistan is a signatory to these international agreements. However, there continue to exist major gaps both in legislation and in implementation.

Both higher inflation and unemployment culminating in a decline in real income of households have altered intra-family consumption patterns with less food available for women and girls. The fall in real income has led to school dropout 'particularly of girls'. In some cases, young girls after dropping out from school are being forced to work as low paid child workers in homes or informal industrial units.

A fear of unemployment may also force working women to accept victimization by employers. Due to an increase in transport fares, the mobility of women has become largely restricted to their own neighborhoods. The tragic dimensions of the current crisis include acts of suicide by women, killing or abandonment of children, escalating crime and conversion of working women into sex workers. Strategies to promote women at work need to focus on implementation of policies that facilitate women's entry in various economic activities as well as reforms.

UN recent report "Keeping the Promise" 2010 says a majority of countries that signed Millennium document in year 2000 will miss out their development targets by a big margin. Ten years have passed and very few member countries have done anything substantive to address problems facing poor and deprived population. The Global MDG plan and any individual country commitments including Pakistan must give priority to both investing in the most off-track targets and promoting a more integrated approach across the MDGs. It is high time that democratic government needs to prioritise issues.

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