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Women & Work in Pakistan

Women and work | Faisal Bari

AFTER she graduated, Sobia was not allowed to work. She was told that she had to get married. Her parents felt that if she started working, people would feel that the family’s economic problems had forced Sobia into it and this would affect her marriage prospects.

But, in the couple of years she waited to be wedded, her parents did allow her to do all sorts of diploma courses so that she could keep busy. She got training as a beautician.

Sobia did get married. She had two children in the first five years. But then her relationship broke down. Her husband became interested in someone else and contracted a second marriage, divorcing Sobia thereafter.

Can a country afford to under-utilise resources and still perform economically?

By this time, Sobia’s father was no more, so she could not move back to her parents’ place. In her late 20s, Sobia was a single mother of two, and had no source of income or physical assets to her name.

Her education and training as a beautician came in handy. She got a job at a local beauty parlour. She rented a couple of rooms near the parlour and shifted there, put her children in school and started working 12-15 hours a day to make enough to survive. Sobia has been working at the parlour for a few years now.

She feels she cannot make more money by continuing to be an employee. She has been investing in her skills by learning whatever she can, on the job, about the beauty parlour business. She feels she could open and manage her own parlour and could do a good job of it. This would give her the opportunity for the growth that she needs, and it would also allow her a higher income — something she desperately needs to improve her standard of living, the quality of education she can provide for her children and for ensuring some build-up of a savings cushion.

She does not have any capital, money or assets she could pledge to raise investment for her parlour. She feels, given her skill level, that the business risk is not too high. She has approached, through some of her contacts, a few banks, for exploring the possibility of a loan. But even for the relatively small loan she needs, she has been told that she needs to offer collateral or get some credible personal guarantees in place before any bank would become interested.

She does not have physical collateral to offer, and her skills/reputation are not considered to be collateral by lenders in Pakistan. She does not have people who could guarantee her loan with their assets or personal guarantee. The typical microcredit loan is just too small to be of any utility.

She is stuck. The job gives her barely enough to manage her household. By the fourth week of every month, she is almost always out of money. She has not had a break from work for a long time as she cannot afford not to work. And even with all this, she has not been able to save anything.

Even the smallest of shocks sends her into a tailspin. When her daughter got chicken pox, the bills from the doctors were significant. More importantly, Sobia had to take a few days off from work. This was not taken well by her employer and her salary was docked for the days she missed. She had to borrow money from a neighbour to make it through that month. And given the lack of slack in her budget, even this small loan took her months to repay. When her son broke his arm and needed surgery, it was a nightmare: a year later, she was still in debt.

Her worst nightmare is a shock that affects her. She has had two children, is in her late 30s now, but she has not been to a doctor for years, even for a normal check-up. She is a bit overweight (has no time for exercise), eats poorly, has bad teeth (has not been to a dentist in 15-odd years), and is overworked and stressed all the time. How long can her health hold out? What happens if she has to take time off? Or has to spend on her own health? It will spell disaster for the household.

More and more women are getting educated in Pakistan, and some data is indicating that at secondary and even university level women are outperforming men academically. But, at the same time, fewer women are entering the workforce. Female workforce participation, for Pakistan, is estimated in 17-20pc range. Bear in mind the contrast: in Bangladesh, female participation rates are around 40pc.

A lot of children never get the opportunity to go to school in Pakistan. But, even of those who go, and even of the small numbers who are able to proceed to post-secondary level, we are allowing too many of them, mostly women, to not even enter the workforce. Can a country afford to under-utilise resources and potential at this scale and still be able to perform economically?

Access to resources, physical or human, in our economy is based on who you are born to, and what sort of resources your ancestors acquired. If you are a part of the elite, the probability that you will continue to be in the elite is high.

However, if you were one of the masses, it is quite unlikely you will achieve major economic/social mobility. And, instead of opening up, the last two decades seem to have reduced opportunities for mobility even more. If you add the gender angle to this, the story becomes almost tragic: can the Sobias of Pakistan have any hope?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at LUMS, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2015

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