Articles about women are most often only read by women, and end up preaching to the choir. My aim here is to provide some data on the economy as I talk about women, because everyone stands to gain from this discussion, including men.

Gender equality is becoming a major variable in development economics as more and more studies are stating that regardless of benefits to human rights, health and welfare, gender equality has a significant impact on economic growth. This holds across different variables relating to gender including more equal male and female ratios of employment, girl’s education and fertility rates.

In fact, some economists have even suggested that female education has a larger impact on GDP growth than Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and that FDI is more productive in countries where women have better rights and access to jobs.

A government policy to encourage female education can have massive benefits for Pakistan, the only problem is that the benefits to such a policy come with a lag. Our politicians and policy makers are looking for quick fixes, like hoping that the CPEC will solve all our problems and not being brave enough to challenge the growing religious right.

According to the World Bank, the return on one year of secondary education for a girl correlates with as high as a 25% increase in wages later in life. The effects carry from one generation to the next: educated girls have fewer, healthier and better educated children. For each additional year of a mother’s education, the average child attains an extra 0.32 years, and for girls the benefit is slightly larger. The same also decreases child marriages, and helps control population growth.

In clear words, a one percentage point increase in female education raises average GDP by 0.3 percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2 percentage points.

No politician or policy maker is looking into this solution for Pakistan’s future growth. Why? Because girls are seen as sweets and broken vases rather than as people.

There are two popular analogies that are brought up to assert the idea that a woman is a vessel of purity, family honour and dignity.

The first is the “Lollipop” analogy- that an immodest woman is like an unwrapped lollipop or sweet that attracts flies. Who wants to eat a dirty sweet? This analogy assumes women are objects to be consumed by men.

The second is the “Broken Vase” analogy that suggests that a woman is like a delicate vase. Once broken, even if it is glued back, you can always see the cracks. Thus women become avatars of perfection, and if a woman makes a mistake, she can never remedy it.

Such biases about women and honour are so inbuilt in our society, we cannot imagine women talking risks and challenging boys and men in school and the workplace. They clearly can. Girls outperform boys across the board in secondary school, including in disciplines like Mathematics. When they reach university and the stage of jobs, they start lagging behind. It is due to the pressure to be perfect that women do not go for subjects that can get them the best jobs and careers. They cannot fail and disappoint their families and do not want to appear to be too ambitious for fear of a lack of social acceptance and marriage prospects. Pressures from family and society keep their ambitions in check, and keep them out of the workplace. Our broken vases can’t take risks, and our society makes sure that a girl never gets to forget her flaws, while a boy can fall and will always be helped up again.

It is a fact established through scientific studies that the children of working mothers do better in school and are generally more confident. This is not to belittle mothers who do not work, but to suggest that some choices are more productive for societal well-being at the macro level. Choice itself is a complex matter when some choices, like getting married at a young age, are easier than fighting to delay marriage, or to hold on to a career. All choices are not equal.

It is good to argue that girls in Pakistan should be educated because this is good for the economy (which it clearly is!), or because educated mothers raise smarter children (because they truly do!). Such arguments help include parts of society that cannot see women as having their own agency (and feelings and ambitions), and need to see some personal benefit from female empowerment, or gender equality to agree to let girls go to school, or work. But there has to come a point where we can stop addressing this issue by talking about mothers, daughters and sisters so that fathers, brothers and husbands will listen… where the radical notion that women are as much human as men is acknowledged. They deserve to have control over their own lives as much as any man- whether this means being able to work, marry, travel, or go to school.

 

The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.

@saadiagardezi