The status of women in Pakistan is not homogenous because of the interconnection of gender with other forms of exclusion in the society. There is considerable diversity in the status of women across classes, regions, and the rural/urban divide due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal, feudal, and capitalist social formations on women’s lives. The critical link between gender inclusiveness and economic growth vis-à-vis other social indicators is well proven, both in terms of global and regional experience as well.

Research shows that when more women work, economies do grow. An increase in female labour force or a reduction in the gap between women’s and men’s labour force participation, results in faster economic growth. Evidence from across the globe also shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women, either through their own earnings or cash transfers, changes spending in ways that benefit children, having spillover effects across many sectors.

Nevertheless, unfortunately Pakistani women are not able to contribute to the economy the way they should, due to various factors. Though, for the ailing Pakistani economy, we need out of the box solutions; the easiest one seems inclusion of women in labour force, triggering productivity in real terms.

Women comprise over half of Pakistan’s population, yet significant portion is out of the labour force. Even those who are part of the labour force are largely in the informal sector, receiving low pay and with few legal protections.

According to the World Bank data for 2019, only 24% of Pakistani women above the age of 15 are actively involved in the labour force. In contrast, the figure for men in Pakistan stands at 81%. Globally, Pakistan is ahead of only 15 countries in terms of female labour force participation rate.

The deeper underlying causes of this phenomenon can be attributed our cultural norms that we do not challenge on a daily basis. Although, women bear the brunt of these norms in their daily lives and accept them without daring to question; it is hard to quantify the real cost to our society.

A recent study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that Pakistan can increase its GDP by 30% by closing the gender gap. For a developing country that is currently growing at a slow pace, this number should set alarm bells ringing. The rationale behind gender empowerment is fundamentally ethical. But it also makes a lot of economic sense.

Moreover, it is pertinent to note that Pakistan once again performed poorly on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. It ranks 151st, which makes it third-to-last. The country is in the club of bottom 10 in three of the four main categories of the index and below the 100th mark in 12 of the 14 individual indicators composing the index.

Encouragingly, however comparing with previous years, Pakistan has improved on a majority of indicators - sometimes markedly and mostly stable in the others. Nevertheless, the gap remains stagnant in terms of economic participation and opportunities, where Pakistan is at 150th in the ranking. Only one-quarter of women participate in the labour force (i.e. working or looking to work) compared with 85% of men. Only 5% of senior and leadership roles are held by women (ranking 146th), twice the rate of 2016. It is estimated that only 18% of Pakistan’s labour income goes to women (ranking 148th), one of the lowest shares among countries studied. While a majority of countries have bridged or nearly bridged the educational gender gap, Pakistan’s still stands at almost 20%.

Less than half of women are literate, compared with 71% of men, while the share of women enrolled is systematically lower than the share of men across primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Though, the political gender gap has narrowed substantially over the past two years but still remains wide; here Pakistan climbed up 93rd position. In 2017, there was not a single female minister, but at present, there are three women in the 25-member cabinet.

However, this minuscule progress is not something to celebrate. There is a lot to be done. Given the structural and cultural factors in a patriarchal society, it is not easy to achieve outcomes in short-term horizons. There is a need to set long-term collaborative yet sustainable efforts in partnership with the relevant stakeholders that cuts through agency distinctions.