Empowering women in Pakistan: the positive side of the story

The gap between theory and practice is less than it ever has been for Pakistani women, during the past 30 years they have become more empowered and emancipated.


By Muhammad Shaheer Jaffar

The empowerment and gender equality of women is recognised globally as essential to building stable, democratic society for the progress of a nation and growth of its economy. Strong and stable position of women is a key factor, or rather the most crucial factor, in furthering international peace and security; ensuring effective and sustainable progression; and addressing critical health and education challenges.

Pakistan has an international image of a developing country that is unable to deliver women rights. Pakistan does not fare well on global indicators for women’s economic participation. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 ranks Pakistan at 143 in economic participation and opportunities and it also ranks Pakistan at 136 in educational attainment. Huge gaps continue to exist between the two genders in politics, health, and education.

The gap between theory and practice is less than it ever has been as the lives of Pakistani women have changed during the past 30 years and they are more empowered and emancipated than they ever have been before. Pakistani women are found in all fields of work including politics, military, education, entrepreneurship, banking and the list extends. Rafia Qaseem Baig is Asia’s first female bomb disposer officer in Pakistan. The late Marium Mukhtar was the first lady pilot of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Muniba Mazari, the Pakistani artist-activist, was named Pakistan’s first female Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Dr Nergis Mavalvala is known for her role played in the discovery of gravitational waves. Rukhsana Parveen and Sofia Jawed became the first Pakistani women to bag international medals in boxing at the 2016 South Asian Games. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of noble prize and an activist for female education. Shamshed Akhtar was appointed as the first female Governor of State Bank of Pakistan. These are just a few examples of many present. These are not only examples, but stories of empowered women.

Various indicators suggest inequality and disparity between men and women. However, in the field of politics, the last 20 years have witnessed remarkable progress in terms of women empowerment. This change in political representation can be attributed to a number of factors, such as Pakistan’s legal commitments to the international community which include: the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), National Plan of Action (NPA), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Moreover, the allocation of reserved seats in National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies are efforts that have been instrumental in empowering women.

In 2000, the quota for women’s participation was raised to 33% at the local government level. This quota was effective at three levels of the local government, namely the union council, the tehsil, and the district level. Similarly, before the 2002 election, the number of women was increased to 17% in both the national and provincial assemblies (with 61 out of 342 members in the national assembly being women). A significant increase in the quota also increased women’s overall participation in the political system for the election of 2002. As a result, the largest ever number of women contested and won general seats. In the election of 2002, 188 women in total contested general seats, and of these 188, 101 were nominated by political parties, and 39 among them won their respective seats. To compare this to the 1997 election, this ratio was almost one-third: only 56 women contested the election at that time, among them 39 were nominated by political parties, and only 7 managed to win. Another important development was observed in 2013 election when women stood in larger numbers for the national assembly general seats compared to the 2008 election. Moreover, the participation of women in elections from diverse areas like FATA and Dir was also a positive sign of an increase in women’s political participation.

Between 2010 and 2012, six progressive legislation supporting women’s empowerment were made. These included the Anti Sexual Harassment Act, National Commission on Status of Women Act, and the Domestic Violence Bill. And during the same time, the law on Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace was implemented which brought around 2000 Government and private organisations to comply with the law, according to a National Commission on the Status of Women Report (2010 –2012).

The political representation of women in Pakistan is higher than India, Sri Lanka and Iran. Pakistan is listed as 45th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) list of women in national parliaments and stood ahead of several developed democracies, including Canada, the UK and the US.

When the page is turned from politics to economics, the scenario gets worse. In economic participation, Pakistani women ranked 126 in the world, 121 in health and 123 in educational attainments. Regardless of these despairing statistics, Pakistani women have proved themselves incredible whether in the field of financial sector, for example, Shamshad Akhtar, former Governor State bank of Pakistan, who was the first women to assume this position, or in the field of technology, for example, Arfa Kareem who was the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional. Yet again, whether in the field of aviation, for example, Shukira Khanam first Pakistani women pilot or in the field of music, for example, Noor Jahan who had been awarded with the Pakistan’s highest civilian awards, Pakistani women have proved themselves time and again.

According to the female labour participation rate by The World Bank, Pakistan observed 11% increase in female labour participation between 1990 and 2017 which is much higher than the increase in United States, United Kingdom, Canada, China and many others.

Efforts for empowering women are not only made by the government of Pakistan, but also by non-profit organisations working in the country. Aurat Foundation is playing a key role in the fight for women empowerment since 1986. Over the period, this foundation has come to be recognised as one of the leading institutions for ensuring women’s political and economic development in the country. Kasht Foundation is another huge platform which emphasises on women empowerment. US Aid is an international organisation working in Pakistan. One of its main objectives is gender equality.

Many NGOs in Pakistan are run by women. For example, Nigar Ahmed is the founder of Aurat Foundation, while Roshaneh Zafar is the founder and MD of Kashf Foundation.

To conclude, the relationship between the women’s movement and the Pakistani state has undergone significant shifts, from mutual accommodation and a complementary ethos to confrontation and conflict, followed by collaboration, co-optation and, finally, collusion depending upon transformations in the nature of the state at particular moments in history. The strategies of the women’s movement reflect significant shifts, from a focus on education and welfare to legal reform, and ultimately to women’s political and economic rights. Even so. many problems have also been faced such as child labour, watta satta and dowry. It is also, however, important to note is that no country till date has been able to achieve women empowerment and gender equality wholly. No country in the entire world has yet established a complete and fully functioning system based on equal gender rights. Has Pakistan done enough? Certainly no. Pakistan has yet to go a long way towards full gender equality and there is no doubt that this progress will take time, but to conclude that Pakistan has not done anything for this cause will be completely erroneous.