Equality between men and women was an unquestioning feature in Quaid’s vision of the state. While addressing the Muslim University of Aligarh on March 10, 1944, he said in a sky-high way, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.” Contemporary Pakistani society is not much different from the above stated description and contains full male biases which cause women to face discrimination at multiple levels and experience a loss of opportunities.

Former World Bank country director, Illango Patchamuthu, during Human Capital Summit 2020, said that women’s economic power and education is essential for the sustainable development of the country. Furthermore, an additional schooling year adds up to nearly 10 percent in their future income. Also, he emphasised that giving access to information, finance, assets, and expanding their skills would boost 30 percent in the economy. Thus, Pakistan must focus on this untapped potential by working on an inclusive framework, policies, and practices to let women in the labour force.

Sadly, a majority of Pakistani girls experience societal pressure, especially about marriage. As per UNICEF, with an estimated 2 million child brides, Pakistan ranked as sixth highest country in terms of child marriages. Forced marriages and early aged marriages have contributed to female dependency, a vicious cycle of domestic violence, and loss of an economic resource. According to a research, putting an end to child brides’ culture could add $6229 million dollars to the economy.

Career and education is at stake when girls get married early and its repercussions are high on a socio-economic level. Out of the total population, 49 percent are women but they only contribute 24 percent to the labour force while men’s contribution is 76 percent. The unemployment rate of women is also double in comparison to men and stands at 9 to 10 percent. In urban areas, this unemployment graph goes upward to 20 percent. Our employment to population ratio is also devastatingly low, that is, 20 percent in the case of women. In contrast, men’s employment to population ratio is 64 percent. Therefore, th ere is no doubt in Pakistan’s ranking at 151 amongst 153 countries as per Global gender report in terms of equality between women and men.

In Pakistan, 21 percent of girls get married before 18 years while 3 percent before 15 years of age. In contrast, women of economically sound nations get married in their late twenties. For instance, Denmark 28.2 years, Japan 29.4 years, Korea 30.2 years, and England 35.5 years. Furthermore, their female population has access to education, liberty, equal opportunity, and employment facilities. However, the Pakistani situation is very daunting. Traditional customs like bartering for girls, marrying girls off before their birth, patriarchal norms by fixing honour boards on girls, family and tribal marriages, and pseudo beliefs like marrying off girls at the start of puberty are adding fuel to fire.

No doubt, Sindh was the first province to enact laws for restraining the child bride culture in 2014 by declaring marriage before 18 as a crime. Contrastingly, the recent decision of the Sindh high court in February, 2020 in case of Huma’s abduction, forced conversion, and marriage at age of 14 by his abductor, Abdul Jabbar has set precedence and allowed men to marry women after their first period. Furthermore, most violent cases that fall under criminal courts are transferred to family courts at district level courts. These developments are institutionalising domestic abuse and tearing the societal fabric.

In this distressing scenario, it’s high time for the nation to wake up and act towards inclusivity otherwise the future seems bleak. Reconstruction of thought on gender norms across all levels can help in curbing ill practices. First of all, knowledgeable skills and training must be imparted intensively to judicial magistrates and police officials for better handling of violence and abuse matters rather than dismissing as family matters. In addition, embedding gender equality ideas in the national curriculum would help children in recognising and rejecting abusive behaviour. The state ought to promote literature and media projects (dramas, films, documentaries and more) that depict women as autonomous and intolerant to any kind of abuse.

Usman Ghani

The writer is a columnist and affiliated with PSPP, PIDE.