In November 2015, Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) released its “Labour Force Survey 2014-15” which revealed that during the survey period, some positive as well as negative developments were observed in Pakistan’s labour market. However, the most notable positive development is that there has been an increasing trend of women’s participation in country’s labour force. Although it is still one of the lowest in the world, yet it has risen significantly after 2009 by almost three percentage points, to reach 22 percent.
Female labour participation has progressively been acquiring focus among policy strategists, sociologists, feminists and economists. Increased female participation in the labour market has been the key impetus to boosting growth of the developed economies. Although considerable leaps and strides can be observed in raising the levels of women’s participation in the labour market, there have been several concerns and challenges that yet remain to be addressed and overcome. The first and foremost among them has been the economic empowerment of women which has been a hotly debated issue globally for at least half a century or more. This debate has also been quite intense in Pakistan as well, especially in recent years.
Women’s position in various informal sectors is especially unsettling, from the perspective of empowerment-by-employment. There are several areas, which have no provisions for appropriate legal recourse, compensation regulation, amenable working conditions and allowing them to realise their actual value potential. It is a stark picture however in many industries, where female workers are systematically denied their rights of regular pay and regular working hours, pay at par with work effort across genders, permanent contracts, occupational safety and non-hazardous work environments, and freedom of association. Egregious abuses, including sexual violence, harassment and forced pregnancy tests, are all too common in the informal sector where there is no regulatory control in place.
However in recent years, significant strides have been observed in women empowerment that has increased the level of female participation in the labour market. Since 1990, female labour force participation increased by around ten percentage points.
But even with these leaps of success, Pakistani women remain an untapped resource comprising fifty percent of the total population, and yet their contribution to income is far below its potential. According to Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) rate in 2014 remains at 25 percent compared to 56 percent of Bangladesh, and in South Asian region this figure stood at 35 percent in 2014.
Multiple pieces of research have proven over the years that economic growth is necessary for poverty reduction, and the potential of the female labour force is essential to this type of growth. A recently published report by International Monetary Fund on macroeconomic gains from raising female labour participation in Pakistan has estimated that the potential benefits from the greater inclusion of women in the economy are enormous: closing the gender gap in Pakistan could boost GDP by almost 30 percent!
In Pakistan, traditionally, the labour force participation of women has remained small compared to male counterparts. Despite an increase in the participation rates, 64 percent of female employment is in unpaid family work—, double the South Asia average. They also face significant wage differentials—18 percent-vis-à-vis their male colleagues.
The 2015 Global Gender Gap Index puts Pakistan second from the last. The Index looks into economic participation and opportunity, education attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. It pointed out that the gender gap is quite problematic in health, education and most of all economic opportunities. Despite an increase in the rate of female legislators in national parliament mainly due to quota, the gender gap is quite wide in Pakistan’s public service. According to the IMF report, total female legislators, senior officials and managers are only consisting 3 percent of the total, while the world average is 29 percent.
According to the IMF, the major factors that can predict male-female gender gap are fertility, educational attainment, daughter inheritance rights, being the head of household and guaranteed equality. On the other hand, higher female schooling, the presence of daughter’s rights of succession, being the head of the family and guaranteed equality help reduce the gap.
But, the good news is that the ratio of girls to boys in enrolment in primary and secondary education is 82 percent. The improvement primarily has to do with increased awareness in the country, but certainly, there is massive room for improvement since Pakistan is well below the low-income country average of 93 percent.
In countries like Pakistan, compared to men, a woman is either pushed or is being pulled from the labour force. The financial reasons are the push factors especially if the women are from the lower layer of the society. The pull factors usually have to do with the opportunities and the increased demand for labour. The federal and provincial government should create a comprehensive policy that includes higher investment in education, significant reforms in both financial sector and business climate. This will provide women with much needed independence they seek to take the advantage of the opportunities available to them.