Introduction: Unearthing the Challenge

In the recent episode that unfolded within the hallowed halls of Pakistan’s parliament, an unsettling incident captured the nation’s attention. Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif, took to the parliamentary floor, using derogatory language to describe female opposition leaders from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party as “trash and leftovers” of its chairman, Imran Khan. But this incident, though regrettable, is more than just a political footnote. It’s a sobering reflection of a deeper, more pervasive challenge that continues to shadow Pakistan’s progress—the struggle for women’s empowerment.

In a nation that boasts a rich tapestry of history, culture, and diversity, the question begs to be asked: Why do such incidents persist? Why, in a society that has witnessed remarkable strides in various domains, continues to grapple with the idea of empowered women? What are the underlying challenges that hinder the realization of gender equality, the cornerstone of a progressive and inclusive society? This exploration reveals not just an incident but a complex web of factors that perpetuate the struggle for women’s empowerment in Pakistan. It’s a journey through history, culture, societal norms, and individual attitudes—a journey that reveals both the hurdles and the resilience of Pakistani women.

In the pages that follow, dissection of these multifaceted challenges has been done, seeking to understand their origins, manifestations, and the collective efforts required to overcome them. The incident within the parliament is but a glimpse of a broader issue that compels everyone to reflect on the very essence of a society that is still grappling with the notion of empowered women. This is not merely a political discourse; it is a societal narrative that calls for collective introspection, action, and progress.

Gender-Based Violence in Pakistan: A Persistent Menace

The prevalence of gender-based violence in Pakistan serves as a stark impediment to the empowerment of women in Pakistan. Indeed, the numbers speak volumes about the challenges they face in their journey towards empowerment. According to a 2022 survey by the Aurat Foundation, a staggering 45% of women in Pakistan have endured some form of physical or sexual violence during their lifetime. Additionally, this same survey found that 20% of Pakistani women have been compelled into marriages against their will.

Tragically, the scourge of honor killings continues to haunt our society. In 2021 alone, Pakistan witnessed over 1,000 reported cases of honor killings—a chilling testament to the persistent challenges women face in our country.

Another demoralizing statistic reveals that the conviction rate for rape cases in Pakistan stands at a mere 2.5%. This underscores the formidable challenge posed by gender-based violence, reflecting the urgent need to address both its prevalence and the barriers to justice that survivors encounter.

In the face of such pervasive gender-based violence, the journey toward empowering women in Pakistan remains an uphill battle, yet one that is more crucial than ever.

Societal Norms in Pakistan: Shaping Women’s Journey

In Pakistan, after religion, societal norms and traditions hold significant sway in shaping perceptions and decisions. Women often find themselves subject to control through either religious beliefs or the confines of societal boundaries.
Early marriage is a common practice here, with Pakistani women marrying young, at an average age of 18.5 years, compared to the global norm of 25.9 years. This limits their educational and economic opportunities, trapping them in cycles of dependency. How can empowerment thrive when futures are predetermined at such a young age, and the odds are stacked against them from the start?

Purdah, meant to preserve modesty and honor, sometimes restricts women’s mobility and access to education and employment. It’s a journey where tradition meets transformation, but it can also silence women’s voices. Is Pakistan truly free when half the population’s voices are muffled?

The dowry system places financial burdens on families and can lead to domestic conflicts. Honor killings, deeply ingrained in cultural norms, tragically claim lives. Women perceived to tarnish their family’s honor, like Qandeel Baloch and Farzana Parveen, have faced dire consequences. How can a society honor its traditions when it dishonors the lives of its women?
These figures and examples underscore the harsh challenges faced by Pakistani women due to deeply ingrained societal norms, highlighting the urgency of reevaluating and reforming these norms to pave the way for genuine women’s empowerment.

Education and Economic Participation: Bridging the Gap

When probing further into Pakistan’s societal norms, a concerning reality emerges for women. This disparity starts within their very homes, where, in stark contrast to their male siblings, they encounter barriers to accessing education and later, opportunities in the workforce.

Educational Disparities: A Pressing Concern for Human Rights

In Pakistan, the literacy rate in 2022 has shown a consistent trend where males have higher literacy rates compared to females. This traditional pattern has persisted over the years, hindering efforts to bridge the gender gap in literacy.
In the year 2022, the male literacy rate stands impressively at 70%, while its female counterpart struggles behind at 48%. This contrast in literacy levels severely mirrors the alarming challenges that hinder females from accessing quality education.
The broader perspective provided by the Population and Housing Census states the overall gross enrollment rate in the country hovers at 78%, with males constituting a dominant majority at 94%. The persistence of high male literacy rates, even in the rural landscape (at 63%), in contrast to the significantly lower female rates (36%), serves as a resounding testament to the deeply rooted gender disparities that persist in educational access.

It is necessary to understand the historical causes of gender inequality in education, when cultural norms prioritized the education of boys and devalued that of girls. This ongoing gender inequality has restricted opportunities for women and girls, impeding efforts to achieve gender equality in the field of education.

At the core of this complex challenge lies the limited availability of schools for girls, especially in rural and remote areas. Economic hardships, long and arduous journeys to distant schools, and deeply rooted cultural norms combine to create a significant obstacle to girls’ access to education. The additional burdens of early marriages and child labor compound this problem, perpetuating a cycle of illiteracy that unjustly robs countless young girls of their fundamental human right to an education.

Economic Participation: Navigating Gender Disparities

In Pakistan, a pounding gender divide continues in the realm of economic participation and opportunities. To comprehend the gravity of this challenge, here are some revealing statistics. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Pakistan currently ranks 142nd out of 146 countries in terms of gender equality, indicating a concerning 42.5 percent gender gap on the Global Gender Gap Index report of 2023. This unsettling data signifies a widening gender gap, painting a discouraging picture of Pakistan’s gender dynamics.

Furthermore, the WEF’s report places Pakistan at 142nd in economic participation and opportunities. This sobering figure sheds light on the hurdles Pakistani women face when pursuing careers and financial independence. It is essential to acknowledge that these disparities don’t exist in isolation but are intertwined with deeply ingrained societal norms and expectations, as discussed earlier.

According to Word Bank 2022 report on women participation in Pakistan’s labor force, merely 25.6% of women aged 15 and older were in the labor force, compared to 85.8% of men. This glaring disparity raises concerns about either a lack of job opportunities for female workers or an unfavorable working environment like workplace harassment.

It’s pertinent to note that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly the 5th objective, are dedicated to eradicating all forms of discrimination and violence against women while concurrently ensuring women’s active participation in the labor force. However, Pakistan, despite its commitment to these global goals, still grapples with a troubling reality. While SDG 5 envisions gender equality and women’s empowerment, the ground situation reveals significant gaps. The notable disparities in education and economic participation paint a concerning picture of women’s rights in Pakistan, challenging the very essence of gender equality.

Champions and Challenges: From Benazir Bhutto to Maryam Nawaz Sharif

In the broader context, the issue of economic participation encompasses more than just statistics. Despite these alarming figures, it’s vital to recognize the progress made in various facets of women’s empowerment in Pakistan.
Within this intricate web of societal norms, countless Pakistani women emerge as champions. They boldly challenge the status quo, advocate for change, and inspire others on the path to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Yet, it’s a journey fraught with obstacles and disappointments, begging the question: when will society truly empower its women?
One notable figure in Pakistan’s history is Benazir Bhutto, who, in 1988, became the world’s first female head of state—a remarkable achievement. However, her tenure was marked by patriarchal criticism that not only violated her right to hold public office but also threatened her personal dignity—a grave example of gender-based attacks.

Unfortunately, even today, women like Maryam Nawaz Sharif, a prominent political figure in Pakistan’s current political arena, continue to face character assassination and gender-based hostility when they assume prominent roles. This demoralizing reality casts a stark shadow over Pakistan’s most prestigious forum – the parliament – where empowered women face derogatory remarks and personal attacks from their male counterparts. This paints a disconcerting picture of Pakistan’s affairs, underscoring how deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes continue to influence the society, despite significant progress in other areas.

Government Initiatives: Rhetoric vs. Reality

On March 27, 2022, a 25-year-old woman’s harrowing experience on the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway highlighted the profound contrast between government rhetoric and the lived experiences of women in Pakistan. Her call for help to the motorway police tragically morphed into a horrifying ordeal when the two men who responded to the call raped her instead. This incident not only highlighted the vulnerability of women but also drew attention to the government’s response.

The statement from a senior motorway police official, Syed Kaleem Imam, who said, ‘It is very unfortunate that such an incident has taken place. However, I want to make it clear that women should avoid traveling alone at night. It is not safe for them to do so,’ suggested that women should avoid traveling alone at night rather than addressing the core issue. Such responses underscore the challenges in translating policy pronouncements into tangible actions to safeguard women’s rights and safety.
When it comes to women’s empowerment in Pakistan, the divide between rhetoric and reality becomes glaringly evident in the realm of government policies and initiatives. While there have been promising policy pronouncements, the challenges in their effective implementation, political opportunism, and the influence of vested interests present a complex picture.

Policy Pronouncements:

The Pakistani government has issued a series of policy pronouncements concerning women’s empowerment. For instance, the National Policy for Women (2020) is a noteworthy commitment to ensuring gender equality and the empowerment of women across all facets of life. Legislative efforts, including the Domestic Violence Act (2016) and the Protection of Women Against Harassment at the Workplace Act (2010), underscore the government’s commitment to safeguarding women’s rights.

Implementation Challenges

However, these well-intentioned policy pronouncements often encounter formidable challenges when transitioning into tangible outcomes. The hurdles that hinder effective policy implementation on the ground include:

a) Lack of Political Will: Despite policy commitments, there’s a prevailing lack of political will to translate these policies into action. The prioritization of individual interests over women’s rights often hampers progress.
b) Resource Constraints: Scarce resources pose a significant barrier to the effective execution of these policies, limiting their potential impact.
c) Awareness Deficit: Both the general public and government officials often lack awareness about these policies and laws, hindering their enforcement and reach.
d) Traditional Power Structures: Deep-rooted traditional power structures, such as patriarchal family dynamics and the influence of religious establishments, frequently resist changes that aim to grant women greater rights and opportunities.

Political Opportunism and Vested Interests:

In Pakistan’s political landscape, women’s empowerment is frequently wielded as a rhetorical tool during election campaigns. Political parties capitalize on the promise of enhancing women’s lives, but these assurances often remain unfulfilled once they attain power.

For instance, during the 2018 election campaign, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government made significant pledges to women, including increasing female representation in parliament and ensuring equal opportunities in education and employment. Regrettably, these assurances have largely gone unrealized.

The actions of the government are occasionally influenced by vested interests, including traditional power structures and influential groups. The religious establishment, for instance, has frequently opposed measures aimed at granting women more rights and opportunities.

Moreover, policy decisions at times prioritize immediate political gains over women’s rights, such as the PTI government’s decision to withdraw the Women’s Protection Bill (2020). This bill could have facilitated the prosecution of those responsible for violence against women but faced significant opposition.

In conclusion, Pakistan’s journey toward women’s empowerment is far from over. While the world may catch glimpses of progress, the ground realities are a stark reminder that true transformation takes time, persistence, and unwavering commitment. The road ahead is uncertain, but it is a road worth traveling, for in the pursuit of gender equality, every step forward brings us closer to a brighter, more equitable future.




Image – The Friday Times

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