ISLAMABAD - Despite constituting almost half of the population, women are underutilized talent in the country and their literacy rate, especially in scientific and technical education is far less than men.

There is a limited pool of female students who can access higher education due to gender disparity in primary and secondary education, poverty, cultural constraints such as early marriages and physical distance to higher education institutes.

"Pakistan lies among the lowest ranked countries of the world as regards hierarchy of gender development and parity", official sources at Pakistan Council of Science and Technology (PCST) told APP here on Sunday.

The global gender gap survey by the World Economic Forum of 135 countries covering more than 90 percent of the world's population placed Pakistan at 134th rank showing a widening gap down from 112 in 2006 to 133 in 2011.

The survey shows that overall, 88 percent of the countries covered in 2006-2012 improved their performance, while 12 percent widen gaps. "Unfortunately Pakistan lies on top of this 12 percent", the sources said. They said the Labour force participation is only 15.6 percent for women as compared to 49.3 percent for men, adding the contribution of women is mostly in agriculture sector where they add an estimated 36.8 percent to Gross National Product (GNP).

The sources said measures should be taken for dissolution of gender discrimination and bring women into mainstream, adding it is important to increase women's access to higher scientific and technical education. Talking to APP, Chairperson PCST Dr Mudasar Asrar said "Traditionally women have dominated health sciences and have neglected the fields of physics, Mathematics, engineering and basic sciences", adding it is now vital to encourage women to attract them in these non-traditional areas.

The need of the time is to identify obstacles that hinder women's participation in the science to ensure maximum enrolment to reduce gender gap, she added.

Dr. Mudasar said literacy rate should be increased by providing equal opportunities for women in education and training and they should be provided free access to all vocational, technical and scientific education.

Some specific allocations in budget should be made to provide scholarships for women's education, she added.

A program of establishing re-entry scholarships and bridging courses can provide "second chance" opportunities for women to re-enter their chosen profession, to recommence study even after getting married and child bearing.

She said women may be given age relaxation till 40 years in fellowship schemes, adding this will enable women to come back, work and re-establish themselves in their field.  "Our aim is to achieve national development and socio-economic progress by utilizing the talents of women to the full at all levels of scientific and technological education, training and employment", she added.

PLAN TO STRENGTHEN PSF TO SECURE SCIENTIFIC UPLIFT: Ministry of Sciecne and Technology is taking steps to strengthen Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF) to achieve scientific development and use it for the betterment of mankind.

The minimal actions envisaged to strengthen science popularization schemes includes coverage of scientific lectures, meetings and reports on electronic and print media.

Besides, PSF will organize different activities including essay and poster competitions and science caravan exhibitions all over the country to highlight importance of science and technology", official source told APP. PSF is working for popularization, promotion and funding of scientific and technological research, he added.

Official said PSF had prepared requisite documents, including a management plan, for approval of the Karakoram Pamir Biosphere Reserve in Gilgit Baltistan which would be the third Biosphere Reserve in Pakistan.

"We are also working for the Khirthar in Sindh province which would be the fourth Biosphere Reserves in the country".

"PSF acknowledges the support of UNESCO to help Pakistan in the field of scientific education, health and cultural heritage". "PSF and Intel has already joined hands to promote science activities in the country by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)", he told.

PSF has educated students throughout the country,by arranging science caravans and mobile science exhibition, mounted on especially designed vehicles.

They consist of display items like Panel Exhibits having photographs and writecups, equipment, inflatable planetarium, documentaries, microscopes, computers, laser holograms and working models reflecting various phenomena of physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology.

At present, nine Science Caravan Units are in operation, two for each of the four provinces and one is stationed at Islamabad, he concluded.