n Hafiz Muhammad Irfan

Every year on March 8, Pakistan commemorates the International Women’s Day - a day celebrating the political, economic and social achievements of women.

No serious development in Pakistan can be accomplished without proactively factoring women’s interests. It was always during the tenures of democratically-elected governments that a variety of pro-women policies and reforms were initiated - many of which have brought a massive change in women’s lives in Pakistan. Indeed, it is only in democratic setups that women can raise their voices and make themselves heard; authoritarianism places critical checks on them.

Against this backdrop, Pakistan was the first Islamic country to have a woman Prime Minister, late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Currently, the Speaker of the National Assembly is a woman; two women are federal ministers and 61 are representing the masses in the National Assembly. According to the International Parliamentary Union’s List of Women in National Parliaments (statistics till December 2011), Pakistan ranked 52nd out of 143 countries. Even more surprising is the fact that it stands ahead of many developed nations, including the US and the UK ranking 53rd and 78th.

Pakistan’s women parliamentarians have been excelling in several areas of legislative functioning, as compared to their male colleagues. Besides politics, many Pakistani women are making their mark in human rights, media, business and entrepreneurship, creative arts, academics, sports etc. But as we recognise their progress, we must also take cognisance of certain grim realities that still hinder them from realising their potential. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s development indicators for women’s health, education and economic empowerment continue to be dismal.

Nearly 50 million Pakistani people - half the adult population - cannot read. Of this, the male literacy (69.5 percent) for individuals over 10 years is much higher than female literacy (45.2 percent) for the same age group. Educational disparity between Pakistani men and women is more pronounced in rural areas (63.6 percent for men and 34.2 percent for women).

Pakistan has been ranked 133 out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index of 2011, which measures inequality between men and women in areas of economic participation and opportunity, education attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Thanks to the widely prevalent feudal system, women in three of the country’s four provinces are often not allowed to vote during the elections. In parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, South Punjab and Balochistan, patriarchal traditions are strong and male political expediency still persists.

Despite this, efforts are being made to develop policies and programmes for the progress of women. The government has made women part and parcel of key policy decisions. Economic empowerment projects have been initiated to create income-generating activities for marginalised women. Women parliamentarians now represent 17 percent of the upper house and 22.7 percent of the lower house. In the same vein, several laws have been passed to prevent domestic violence against women and harassment at the workplace. Although some initiatives have been taken by the government for women’s empowerment that have been appreciated at home and abroad, yet there is a lot more that needs to be done!

n    The writer is associated with a research organisation based in Islamabad.

    Email: irfanchaudhri@gmail.com