Pakistan: International Women's Day - Let's advocate change in the patriarchal mind-set

Asia Human Rights
March 8, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said the following in a message on International Women's Day. "On International Women's Day, let us all pledge to do everything we can to overcome entrenched prejudice, support engagement and activism, promote gender equality and women's empowerment."

The 2017 UN theme on International Women's Day is--Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030. This theme is considering how to accelerate to the 2030 Agenda. They hope to build momentum for the effective implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals. Especially noted are goals number 5-Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and number 4-Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Focus will be on new commitments under the UN Women's Step It Up initiative, existing commitments on gender equality, women's empowerment and women's human rights.

The International World's Day, IWD, an international civil society group, has also come out with the theme of: #BeBoldForChange. It says: each one of us-women, men and non-binary people joining forces - can be leaders within our own spheres of influence. We must take bold pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity. Through purposeful collaboration, we can help women advance and release the limitless potentials they offer to economies all over the world. Each year on 8th March, the women of the world come together, to commemorate and celebrate the spirit of gender equality. Each year millions of women across the globe are reminded that they are not alone in their fight against sex discrimination, gender disparity, pay gaps and glass ceilings.

The Asian Human Rights Commission is appalled with the fact that, year after year, Pakistan's ranking in international gender indices has been slipping. In the Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) 2016 of The World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranked a dismal 143 with a score of 0.556. Among the 144 countries, Pakistan ranked just above Yemen.

Today, the world is witnessing the rise in women's empowerment, in emancipation from socio-economic male control and in increasing calls for equal pay for equal work. But, the Pakistani state struggles with a regressive patriarchal culture which subsists at the cost of women's lives. Unlike their sisters elsewhere, women in Pakistan must pay a price for daring to speak up for their rights even though they are guaranteed these rights under Religion and the Constitution.

Pakistan ranked 141 in the Global Gender Gap Report of 2014. It slipped down three places to rank 144 in 2015. In 2016 it rose slightly to 143. Pakistan has been ranked as the second worst country in the world for gender equality for two years in a row.

The yearly report measures progress toward gender parity in four areas. They include educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political empowerment. Pakistan's scores on the four pillars of the global gender gap index have not improved much from last year. Pakistan scored 143 on economic participation and opportunity. Its education attainment is slightly better at 135. However, overall, according to the report Pakistan has not changed from last year-2016.

What is holding Pakistani Women back?

Pakistan's poor rankings present a bleak picture of the modest progress made on female empowerment and gender equality. The narrative of women's empowerment is an exercise in futility in our patriarchal culture of honour killings, female infanticide, rape and violence.

Given the sad reality, achieving the targets set for gender equality and empowerment of women by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) appears to be a distant dream.

Article 38 of the Constitution and international conventions such as CEDAW make it incumbent upon the State to ensure gender parity in terms of socio-economic standings of man and women. The deep-rooted patriarchal mindset is a major hurdle in the path towards a free society. Even when structural and social barriers are overcome, seeking employment with problems such as pay gaps and glass ceilings in managerial positions, keep Pakistani woman underpaid, overworked and poorly motivated.

Being the second most dangerous country in the world for women, it takes immense strength and courage to break through Pakistan's social barriers and glass ceilings. Pakistani women have fought a long battle to win their rights guaranteed under the Constitution, yet they are still relegated to second-class citizen status.

Honour crimes continue unabated

It is unimaginable for the male dominant society to allow their women the right to choose. Perceived as property, a woman's body is associated with the honour of the male. He is the guardian of the family honour and may reprimand a woman for not conforming. Women, exercising the right to marry of their own free will, are perceived as a threat to male authority. Freedom of choice is thus policed.

Honour killing is a barbaric custom that has claimed many innocent lives in the country according to UNICEF. The National Report titled, Situation Analysis of Women and Children in Pakistan, wrote that almost 25 percent of the total honour killings in the world occur in Pakistan alone.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, some 512 women and girls, and 156 men and boys, were killed in 2016 by relatives on so-called "honour" grounds. Moreover the Aurat Foundation's annual report of 2016 showed 7,852 cases of violence against women. Reportedly, there has been a 70 per cent increase in honour killings in the past year.

An amendment to the law on "honour-based" killings was introduced to end impunity for such crimes. Although it allowed for the death penalty as a possible punishment, it also allows perpetrators to have their sentences lessened if they secure a pardon from the victim's family. It remains unclear as to how the authorities will distinguish between an "honour killing" and murder. What standards of evidence would apply, or what penalties would ensue? Human rights NGOs and activists were concerned that the penalty imposed should not depend on whether or not the victim's family had pardoned the crime.

Due to State apathy and an utter disregard for the well-being of its citizens, there is a culture of impunity that exists including when police reports may be filed. There is often very little follow-up, particularly in rural areas. The murder of a woman is a domestic issue in the country according to the Chief Minister of KPK "It is hard for us (the government) to intervene since the majority of these cases are handled domestically".

In Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa (KPK) Province alone as many as 23 incidents involving violence against women have been reported since the beginning of 2017. The murder of Hina Shah Nawaz, an M.Phil scholar from Kohat, was the most high profile case. It garnered much media frenzy. The case brought to light the struggle of women who dare to declare economic emancipation from male guardians.

The Economic battle for survival

Given the deeply ingrained practices of female infanticide and the preference for a male child, gender equity becomes a strong moral and humanitarian issue. The birth of a girl in many Pakistani families is perceived as a financial loss. Several studies conducted in the region have revealed the existence of "food discrimination" in families where the best food is reserved for the male child. Despite the advancement in education and more avenues opening for women the glass ceiling still persists for leadership roles for women in both public and private sectors.

Ranking 143rd for economic participation and opportunity according to the Global Gender Gap Report, Pakistan is one of the three countries with the lowest percentage of firms with female participation in ownership. In fact, on the Economic Participation and Opportunity sub-index, Pakistan has experienced one of the highest negative percentages of change. The country ranks 119th on the Health and Survival sub-index and 85th on the Political Empowerment sub-index. Women in ministerial positions have a dismally low global ranking of 139.


Fostering education, skills and entrepreneurship can help to transform the labour market. Access to information communications technology can help develop marketable skills, secure quality work opportunities and help forge a better working world for women in Pakistan.

The State must enact legislation and policies to encourage a more inclusive, gender-equal society where women and men's contributions are valued equally. Private entities can play an important role in creating an inclusive flexible work culture where gender parity is encouraged. The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) – in its 2016 status report on Women's Economic Participation and Empowerment emphasizes the need for improving girls' access to education, ending early and forced marriage of young girls.

The development of Women Economic Empowerment (WEE) Index will help policy makers in creating informed policies where actions and progress are measured.

The word "change" is the major theme for Women's Day across the globe. The need of the hour is a change in attitude and mindset--not just in the work place but generally throughout society. Women are NOT victims. They are change agents, they are drivers of progress, and they are peace makers. All they need is a chance to prove their mettle. The rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.