Speech at IFC-PBC event: Driving Economic Growth through Women’s Employment in Pakistan

Delivered at IFC-PBC event: Driving Economic Growth through Women’s Employment in Pakistan at Karachi Marriot Hotel

Distinguished Delegates,

The 8th March saw a wave of movements pressing for progress on women rights following #MeToo and #TimesUp. This is a positive opportunity for change.

The push for gender equality runs through the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda – which to be achieved will require swathes of discriminatory legislation to be fundamentally revisited. But even more critical is enforcement through effective governance of the corporate sector, institutions and judicial system.

Pakistani women have proven their potential across a range of fields and continue to strive to gain ground. But there is a striking dissonance between Pakistan’s national legislation, its Vision 2025 to protect women’s rights, its international commitments to gender equality (Pakistan is signatory to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the 2030 Agenda, among others) and the reality experienced by women the length and breadth of the country. The dispassionate assessment of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranks Pakistan the most gender unequal country in the world apart from Yemen.

Discrimination starts from entry into the work force. Female participation in the formal sector is barely 25 per cent and urban women’s participation 12 per cent. Primary school teachers enable it to scrape past 30 per cent in the professions. Nationally, the share of women in the public-sector employment is abysmally low: less than 5 percent. Lack of gender responsive infrastructure and weak implementation of laws on sexual harassment in the workplace and public places further inhibit women from pursuing their careers outside their homes.

Women work principally in the informal sector, rural areas and home-based activities. They operate in precarious working environments, have low or unpaid jobs and minimal social protection. Women shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care work, a burden that is ten times higher for women than men in Pakistan.

Discriminatory practices are pervasive. Women’s capacity to start a business is limited given low access to savings and credit. Only 0.13 per cent of women are owners of private firms and only 0.06 per cent of firms have female senior managers. Directorships at corporate board levels in companies listed Karachi Stock Exchange can be counted on fingers. Access to finance is restricted: 3 per cent of women have a bank account compared to 14 per cent for men.

Discrimination goes from compensation to inheritance. ILO study points to a 26 per cent gender pay gap which is 33 per cent in garment industry – our major export revenue spinner. Women are being deprived of their right to own and inherit land even though law offers women access to land on same grounds as men. The 2011 Anti-Women Practices Law makes it a punishable offence to deprive women of their inheritance rights. Yet widows and daughters regularly see their inheritances stolen from under their noses by male relatives 1.

18th constitutional amendments have fragmented women’s legal architecture and its enforcement – yet offered the opportunity for provinces to introduce change. The Sindh Government has given land to landless women in Pakistan through its Land Distribution Programme.2 The Benazir Income Support Programme has helped some vulnerable populations.3 Quotas have been increased; offices of Harassment at Workplace Ombudspersons have been instituted in Sindh, Punjab and in Islamabad. The Fair Practices Act 2014 in Punjab has secured 33% representation of women in all public sector boards, and Women’s Empowerment Package and Women’s Empowerment Initiative have opened options and support for working women.

But the hill to climb is steep and progress is impeded by a lack a political representation. Only 21 per cent of national parliamentary seats are held by women. In absence of merit, women’s representation in Cabinet is non-existent. Despite the quotas supporting women’s participation in public life, women are frequently disenfranchised 4.

Closing gender gaps in participation and productivity could result in GDP gains up nearly 50 per cent in South Asia by 2025. Closing the global credit gap for women-owned SMEs by 2020 could increase average per capita incomes by about 12 per cent across several Asia-Pacific economies, including Pakistan. 5

To achieve these sorts of gains, actions in four areas are key.

First, legal and institutional frameworks need to be reformed. Gender parity need to be recognized. Equal pay needs to be instituted and women’s unpaid care work recognised. Article 37 of the constitution must be upheld, and legal maternity leave and benefits provided.6 Legislation and effective compliance are needed to recognize women’s ownership of land and physical assets, supported by equitable allocation of public land and affordable housing entitlements. Tax credits should support working women when it comes to income, major asset purchases and childcare.

Second, women’s empowerment calls for equipping women with the skills, finance and opportunities Gender parity at all levels of schooling is critical. Tragically, 40 per cent of girls between the ages of six and ten are currently not even enrolled. Lifelong education and training need to be aligned with market demands. And women’s access to ICT and innovative technologies, modern business processes, and product promotion to sell into bigger markets should all be improved.

Third, new innovative funding mechanisms such as women entrepreneurship bonds, impact investment funds and gender responsive FinTech solutions have potential to accelerate pace of empowerment but require financial literacy, ICT to reduce transaction costs.

Fourth, promoting a gender responsive policy environment means nurturing a culture of women entrepreneurship, incentivising finance for women and streamlining business registration procedures. It also requires integrating women in chambers of commerce, business associations or civil service commissions better. Gender-responsive budgeting is needed for a more equitable distribution of public resources.

Gender equality in Asia would increase per capita income by 70 per cent over sixty years. In Pakistan, it would make a huge contribution to achieving sustainable development and reducing poverty. So following the energy galvanised by International Women’s Day, my hope is that in Pakistan and across Asia and the Pacific, governments will be bolder in their measures to achieve equality and give women the support and opportunities that are theirs by right.


1OECD (2014) SIGI summary for Pakistan

2Participatory Development Initiatives (2009), Sindh Government’s Land Distribution Program (2009)

3OECD (2014) SIGI summary for Pakistan

4OECD (2014) SIGI summary for Pakistan

5The Goldman Sachs Global Market Institute estimates include Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and the Republic of Korea. Stupnytska, A. et al. (2014). Giving credit where it is due: How closing the credit gap for women-owned SMEs can drive global growth. Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute

6See for example https://www.dawn.com/news/1318989