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Why Pakistanis must do better for its Better Half

Women make up nearly half of our country’s population. All serious research done in any part of the world shows that women are the driving force of positive change, progress, and prosperity at the household, community, and country levels.

This is the case for decisions about investments in children’s education and health, savings for the family, performance at work, and more. But have we learnt anything from such compelling evidence?

Let us compare our current position and historical course over time with Bangladesh — once part of us and our natural equivalent — to understand how we fare on the women empowerment front.

It is now widely recognised that Bangladesh’s export-led economic growth owes largely to the labour of its women — their skills, need-based grit to support their families, and confidence that they too can compete globally.

Could they do it without the support of their men at home, in the community, and those at the helm of their country’s affairs? Perhaps not. But could Bangladesh have achieved economic success without its women? Absolutely not.

The skewed gender ratio

A few key statistics bring much needed clarity to the argument I am trying to make (data is taken from the World Development Indicators 2022).

Figure 1 about Bangladesh and figure 2 about Pakistan show that over the 48-year period of 1972-2020, the gender ratio at birth averaged at 104.5 and 106.8 males per 100 females, respectively, implying that 2.3 more baby boys were born for every 100 baby girls in Pakistan than in Bangladesh (averages calculated from the data). The natural gender ratio at birth is estimated to be in the range of 102-105 males per 100 females.

Nature follows its own balancing act, depending on how we treat ourselves. In general, males are more likely to succumb to diseases than females during childhood, or die earlier than females due to unhealthy and risky behavior. However, this startling difference in the gender ratio at birth suggests that sex-selective abortions, owing to a strong preference for sons, are more pervasive in Pakistani society than in Bangladesh’s (read more on Dr Amartya Sen’s 100 million missing women).

A barbaric reality

Although abortions are legally permitted under extremely limited circumstances in Pakistan, it is nonetheless practiced with impunity should the parents choose to abort their pre-born child, sometimes based solely on gender.

The burning questions that torment my mind, though, are: How does a pregnant woman allow herself to abort her baby just because the foetus in her womb does not have an XY chromosome, that too with serious risks to her own life? Where do these pressures come from? Why do some of us keep making false assertions that it’s women, not men, whose physiology determines the sex of a child — when scientific evidence has consistently proven the opposite? Why do hospitals, maternity homes and pseudo medical-practitioners across the country provide such heinous and unlawful services? Think a bit, and you will realise that the culprit behind these pressures and practices is none other than our regressive, patriarchal mindset.

In Pakistan, at present, the average number of children born per woman is 3.6, while the fertility rate per woman in Bangladesh is 2, which is considered to be the ideal replacement fertility rate.

How is it that Bangladesh is able to control its population growth rate so effectively, while we remain stuck in our own self-defeating prophecies? Ideally, the choice of how many children to have should be a mutual decision for a couple. However, this is based on the assumption that the couple makes the decision in total harmony without exertions from either side, and that they understand the implications of their decision.

In reality, traditional beliefs, social values and norms play a significant role in shaping their attitudes. Many pregnancies are unintended due to the lack of affordability and availability, or simply unwillingness to use contraceptives by husbands, while many others are to achieve the desired numbers of sons. At this point, perhaps I don’t need to specify who is responsible for that (hint: the patriarchy).

Who is to blame?

Likewise, in 2020, the adult female literacy rate and female labour force participation rate (both as a percentage of the female population aged 15 and above) were 25.5 and 14.4 percentage points lower in Pakistan as compared to Bangladesh. This means that Pakistan needs to educate 16.27 million and employ 9.19 million more women just to match the current rates of Bangladesh in these two areas.

Why didn’t we concentrate on these vital aspects of women’s empowerment, which could increase their bargaining power and inclusion in all other decision-making areas? Is this the fault of women? Or is it because of the ignorance and restrictions imposed on them by the men at home? Or the negligence of male-dominated policy-makers in every government, who remained myopic and failed to do their jobs?

The world recognizes the successful implementation of various program — conditional cash transfers, stipends for female students, family planning campaigns, and micro-finance lending — that have successfully increased literacy and labor force participation, and decreased fertility among Bangladeshi women.

These programs have created opportunities for millions of girls and women there. In Pakistan, how much more evidence is needed to convince the government what really works? Unfortunately, the devil lies with our deep-rooted colonial mentality, poor resource management, corruption, and rent-seeking behavior.

Clearly, Bangladesh is reaping tremendous rewards by empowering its women. After knowing these comparative statistics, one can perhaps imagine how the women in our society must feel and what they might wish for. But wishes are not horses they could fly on and move away.

As the saying goes, “it’s never too late,” but, sadly, the current situation is not a desirable one. Let us wake up to the reality with an open mind and take leaps to empower our women to reduce poverty, bring prosperity and stimulate economic growth with equitable opportunities in our homeland.

Courtesy: The article by Javed Younas is originally published by the Image Section of the Dawn newspaper.

Zahra Sikandar
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