‘Actions not Words are Needed to Enable Women to Progress’Interview with Tahira Abdullah - Dawn newspaper April 14
By Moniza Inam

Tahira Abdullah (Credit: rawa.org)

What are the basic reasons for persistent poverty of Pakistani women?

Several factors contribute to exacerbate the feminisation of poverty in Pakistan. These include the increasing overall national poverty rates, of both women and men; rising inflation, food insecurity and unemployment. A female/male poverty ratio of 3:1, as acknowledged by successive military dictatorships and civilian elected governments over the past decade and a half, is shameful and totally unacceptable for a developing country like Pakistan.

Home-based, low-income, urban women workers suffer huge exploitation from middlemen, contractors and employers; but for rural agricultural women (the vast majority of women workers in Pakistan), the situation is even worse, as they do not get paid wages at all, due to being termed as ‘family helpers’ and thus sink lower into chronic poverty.

Men working in agriculture (known as mazaaras and haarees) are also exploited by the rich feudal landowners, by being either unpaid serfs/peasants/bonded labour through generations, or by being paid inadequately in kind, a fractional portion of the harvested food crop, but women peasants are not paid at all, and have no control over or access to their spouses’ wages.

Conversely, it is the women who are responsible for the food security of their immediate and extended family (husband, children, in-laws), as well as for the triple burden of work: (i) domestic household chores, (ii) economically productive agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forestry activities, (iii) reproductive functions of child-bearing and rearing. Women also suffer greater ill-health, anaemia, mal/under-nutrition, and reproductive health (RH) complications, without access to free public sector or affordable private sector RH services.

This not only increases the burden of poverty for women, but it also decreases women’s productive capacity, as well as increasing their poverty of opportunity (including lack of education, information, mobility, socio-cultural restrictive norms and other constraints). This concept was introduced by the eminent Pakistani economist Dr Mahbub ul Haq, who coined the terms Poverty of Opportunity Index (POPI), Human Development Index (HDI), Gender Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). Pakistan, regrettably, still does not fare well on any of these indices.

What practical measures do you suggest to eradicate the high incidence of poverty in women in the local context?

The lesson to be learnt from the failure of the mala fide, badly conceptualised and highly politicised Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is that monthly charitable handouts do nothing to alleviate poverty — it was simply a meagre social protection measure to ensure votes in the next elections, and fostered dependency and beggary.

Long-term poverty eradication measures first require transfer of land to women for building women’s assets ownership in their own name, in order to increase women’s credit-worthiness and provide collateral for loans for women’s entrepreneurship.

The incoming governments (both federal and provincial) need to increase and encourage the private sector to also increase their investments in rural development, agriculture and agro-based industries, especially food crops (vs cash crops such as cotton).

Women’s and girls’ education and vocational skills training, in both rural and urban areas, needs huge investments, in order to increase women’s registration and eligibility for formal sector employment, trade union membership and labour benefits, particularly health, children’s education and social security.

It is most important that the government recognise the huge contribution women are making to the GDP, albeit invisible, unacknowledged and uncounted in national statistics, due to outmoded and unjust definitions of “labour force”, which exclude the entire agriculture sector and home-based workers from the formal, organised sector labour force.

Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is also a State Party to various UN Conventions, including several at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and, inter alia, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and thus must adhere to its binding international commitments, as well as to the fundamental rights enshrined in the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan.

It is vitally important that Pakistan ratify the ILO Convention 177 and R-198 to grant recognition and formal labour status to the millions of home-based workers (as distinct from domestic staff) in Pakistan.

It is also vitally important for the federal and provincial governments to recognise the huge numbers of de facto women-headed households, to register them and to grant them formal status, resulting in their eligibility for social security, membership of the Employees’ Old Age Benefits Institution, health insurance and other benefits available to working men registered as household heads.

Tahira Abdullah is a development worker, and peace and human rights activist

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