November issue 2002

By | Business | Published 19 years ago

“We are here to claim our rights as women, not only to be free but to fight for freedom. That is our right as well as our duty,” stated Christabel Pankhurst on the eve of women’s liberation in the western world. And while the fairer sex certainly has come a long way since the days of the industrial revolution, which presaged their economic and consequent social liberation, has this model yielded the same results in Pakistan almost a century later?

Not according to the findings of a study conducted on ‘Women’s Work and Empowerment Issues in an Era of Economic Liberalisation: A Case Study of Pakistan’s Urban Manufacturing Sector.’ A seminar held on October 17 to launch the report, commissioned by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) in association with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), put paid to the supposed linear link between economic growth, social development and the empowerment of Pakistani women — the most marginalised section of society. Starting with a brief overview of the effects of the structural adjustment policies on the real economy, co-author, Dr Asad Sayeed observed that women who entered the formal sector did so only due to the high inflation rates over the past years. Interestingly, his findings reveal that the majority of Pakistan’s working women are involved in the informal sector which yields an income far below the standard minimum wage, whilst a minority who do find employment in the formal economy, face a wage structure sharply skewed in favour of their male counterparts.

While female employees in the informal sector earn an average of 2,100 rupees monthly, those in the informal (and thus unregulated) sector earn only 1600 rupees. And while 51 per cent of working women earn more than the standard minimum wage in the formal economy, 48 per cent earn incomes far below the standard minimum wage. Sixty-nine per cent of women in the informal sector, however, earn below the minimum wage. The study reveals further that 66 percent of working women are literate with almost half of them holding a high school diploma. Yet, this high literacy has not resulted in demands for equal rights or wages. The only positive aspect has been a change in women’s attitudes regarding the education of their daughters, with a large majority now in favour of schooling for both sexes.

The findings of the reports co-author, Dr. Saba Gul Khattak, translated these hard numbers into the intangible spillover effect on women’s empowerment. She found that while there had been an increase in women’s participation in the workforce, they remained relegated to a subordinate status. Most women who work full time suffer from chronic fatigue. And while 45 per cent women reported a decrease in their household chores, this was due to the delegation of household chores to the other women in the family, indicating that there had been no change at all in gender roles in society and within the smaller confines of the family as decision-making powers and social mobility outside the home remained restricted.

These statistics should come as little surprise to development experts. Whereas the liberation of women based on economic independence is a tried and tested formula, the economic conditions of third world countries (periphery states) differs in significant ways from those of Europe and the US (centre) in the throes of the industrial revolution. Development literature focusing on the causal relationships between money and power finds that the unequal gender relationships between the sexes has its roots in the skewed economic dynamics of the centre and periphery states. Profits which were used to lay the foundations for domestic growth in the west during the days of the industrial revolution, are in the context of third world economic colonialism, being repatriated to the centre under the economic liberalisation policies imposed upon the developing periphery. Stuck in an industrialisation warp focusing on mainly low-value added goods, the link between industrialisation and empowerment is severed, resulting in low-paid workers and a significant gender bias. Concluding the seminar, Dr. Kaiser Bengali (SPDC), hinted at an even more challenging future for women under the current world order, in which transnational corporatations and market liberalisation is gaining strength over the nation state.

Interestingly, this study comes at a time when women’s liberation in the west has also come under renewed scrutiny with various reports suggesting that the days of the western ‘supergirl’ are numbered. A large number of western working women find themselves chronically fatigued, and expected to juggle the roles of business exec and homemaker while their male counterparts still enjoy a preference in promotions and pay while contributing only negligibly to household chores.