While stories concerning the glaring gender disparities within our own country are often highlighted, such problems are not confined to our country alone. The economic discrimination against women is a problem which continues to afflict the developing as well as the developed world.

A new UN report titled “Progress of the world’s women 2015-2016” shows how gender disparities remain a rampant problem across much of the world. Current economic policies and discriminatory attitudes are prevalent in rich and poor countries alike, leading to relative socio-economic disadvantages for women in the labour market. Even in countries where formal equality in the form of laws exists, the type of work women perform is undervalued as compared to the jobs that men do, resulting in a gender pay gap. Combining paid and unpaid work, women in almost all countries around the world work longer hours each day than men. Women earn, on average, 24 per cent less than men, work more hours and have less chance of receiving a pension later in life. The status of women is, of course, not consistent across the world, and their situation is much worse in some countries compared to others. In poorer countries, for example, 75 per cent of women are employed in informal sector jobs, not covered by international employment laws, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The UN report singles out Pakistan, along with seven other countries (Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia) for maintaining highly discriminatory laws that, for example, endorse men’s authority over women, including uneven asset ownership. In the specific case of Pakistan, not only is the extent of work done by women underreported, but they are also severely undercompensated for their labour, except perhaps for the minute proportion of them with good jobs in the private sector. Government initiatives such as the Lady Health Workers programme and hiring women as schoolteachers, do provide desperately needed employment opportunities in the public sector. Yet, there is limited protection for women even in the formal sector. There is not enough representation of women within existing labour unions. Labour inspections of formal sector work-sites remain gender insensitive. It is thus not surprising that even major factories often do not have separate washrooms, daycare facilities, or provide maternity leave. Moreover, women make up 65 per cent of the labour force in the informal sector, where labour inspections do not even occur, including cottage industries, domestic work and agriculture. In agriculture, for instance, women are facing an increasing burden for ensuring household survival given the lack of access to land on sharecropping arrangements for their men-folk, and the preference for commercial farms in particular to hire women to perform low-paid daily wage work.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is still a reality for women who work. The UN report found that even in the European Union, 75 per cent of women who hold managerial or more senior professional positions say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. The situation in countries like Pakistan, which have only recently introduced legislation to stop sexual harassment at work, and which has much more limited capacity to actually implement legislative measures, would be significantly worse. In order to enable women to achieve greater socio-economic empowerment, there is need to not only better remunerate women who work but to also ensure that their rights are better protected and that social services are made more gender sensitive, so that they better cater to the needs of working women, by paying attention to provision of affordable childcare, for instance. These are policy reform issues which not only our government, but the numerous donor agencies which are working within Pakistan, must also pay more attention to.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2015.