Women Economic Empowerment is Key to Pakistan’s Development

Increasing women’s participation in Pakistan’s labour force is beneficial to both economic growth and gender equality. Policy interventions must identify and alleviate barriers to women’s participation by improving access to finance, enhancing digital literacy, and addressing mobility challenges.

The lack of women’s participation in Pakistan’s economy is both a gender equity and developmental concern. The economic case for focusing on women’s economic empowerment is clear: if their participation was at par with men, Pakistan’s GDP could increase by 60% by 2025. Another estimate suggests that closing the gender gap in labour force participation could lead to a one-off 30% boost in GDP.

Globally, women form 38.8% of the labour force, but just around 20% in Pakistan, one of the lowest in South Asia. In fact, Pakistan fares poorly on all gender-related indicators. The Global Gender Gap Index Report 2022 ranked Pakistan at 145 out of 156 countries in terms of women’s economic participation and opportunity, at 135 for women’s educational attainment, 143 for women’s health and survival, and at 95 for political empowerment. The Global Wage Report 2018-19 by International Labour Organization estimated the gender pay gap variation between men and women at 34%. Pakistan also shows the largest gender gaps amongst electrical democracies in voter turn-out, with men being 20% more likely to vote.

The constraints to women’s participation have been discussed and documented at length. These range from the lack of a conducive policy support (such as lack of workplace regulation, maternity leave laws, access to credit and finance) to patriarchal mindsets and social norms that limit women’s mobility and choice to work, including concerns of mobility and access to transport, and the burden of unpaid care and domestic work.

How are researchers helping to find solutions to enhancing women’s empowerment? The research community is now sharing findings from ongoing and completed work that is providing a substantive policymaking direction. We look at some recent IGC research and draw a list of the most compelling policy messages.

1. Investing in gender equality can help build resilience to future shocks.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis is affecting women and deepening gender inequalities within Pakistan. Even when the exposure to a hazard is the same for all, levels of vulnerability, access to resources, and coping skills can greatly vary across genders. This highlights the need to reduce gender gaps and protect women from future shocks as women remain more vulnerable to the adverse impacts of health and economic shocks.

A recent IGC project examined evidence from Pakistan to understand the developmental and poverty outcomes of female labour force participation, particularly in low-income and vulnerable households, and especially in the face of shocks. Findings suggested that if the challenges to female workforce participation are addressed, then developmental and productivity benefits could accumulate at a national level. However, the notion of disaster resilience is still considered largely gender-neutral in Pakistan. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that Pakistani women remained less likely to receive vital information on health safety due to lower levels of education and a lower likelihood of owning a mobile phone or having internet access. The pandemic exacerbated these disparities, with a larger proportion of women than men being pushed into extreme poverty.

2. Unlocking women’s productivity requires a policy intervention on multiple fronts.

Constraints to female entrepreneurship are not just financial. Women need soft skills and training to engage in sustainable economic activity. A recent study tested if low-cost and less intensive training to create aspirations and desire to set goals for the future could help women micro-entrepreneurs. The study found that such interventions had an immediate short-term impact on hard work and perseverance.

Women also face constraints in their ability to market their products and identify marketplaces. They require digital skills and access to markets to be better equipped to conduct business-related activities. An ongoing study by researchers based at University of Delaware is looking at the impact of digital skills training on female labour force participation. The intervention is aimed at women enrolled in skills training centres situated across Punjab, Pakistan.

3. Women that are interested in work may face barriers in their job search.

An area that has received lesser policy attention is the job search process. Data from a in Pakistan reveals differences in how men and women search for jobs, and provides insight into the difficulties women face in labour market participation. These findings indicate that a key obstruction faced by women in their job search is due to their lack of access to networks that can provide information about job vacancies. Potential policy solutions to address such barriers can include organising women collectives for networking, and the creation of opportunities for firms to share job postings outside of their networks.

4. Men and women face different mobility challenges.

Women’s mobility is a real concern in a society that discourages close physical contact between opposite genders. This constrains their choices to participate in the labour force, continue their education, or engage in other independent activities. Women’s mobility is not just limited by the lack of infrastructure but also by women’s agency. A recent study looked at how migration, urbanisation, and the perceived threat or the threat of violence and harassment shapes women’s agency and mobility and determines their access to the market, economic opportunities, and the public sphere in an urban South Asian context. It found that in an urban context, women’s mobility is affected by distinct patriarchal norms within communities, geographic and spatial anxieties due to migrant status and histories of conflict. This study suggests a differentiated employment strategy concerning women’s economic participation, underpinned by social policy that is context-specific and sensitive to the needs of local communities.

5. Inclusiveness in growth demands women’s voices are heard.

States’ effectiveness in responding to women’s needs in service delivery is greatly influenced by voter turnout inequality during elections. Ongoing research by academics based at Yale University is helping to uncover the drivers of the gender gap in voter turnout in the Pakistani context. This research looks at the sub-national variation in voting patterns of women and tries to understand what explains the gap. So far, evidence suggests that weak engagement between political parties and women voters may be an important factor explaining low female electoral participation in urban centres. Women’s political participation is also found to be lower in big cities with greater exposure to political violence.

IGC Pakistan is working directly with Pakistani policymakers to equip them with knowledge and evidence to support their decision-making and design reforms. Pakistani policymakers are also showing a growing commitment to the agenda of women’s empowerment. With more evidence on what works, Pakistan can make progress in empowering millions of women, lifting them and their households out of poverty.

Hina Shaikh is a Country Economist for the International Growth Centre (IGC) in Pakistan.

This blog originally appeared on the International Growth Centre’s (IGC) website here.