Saving Pakistan

Published in Daily Times on April 14th 2014

Both Christine Lagarde, director of the International Monetary Fund and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe believe there is one way of saving Japan from the slowing growth rate because of an aging population and shrinking labor force. That way is to increase the number of women in the workforce. The recent IMF report, “Can Women Save Japan?” says women in career-track jobs, could boost economic growth.

Pakistan is number 8 on the frontier economies according to the ranking provided by Bloomberg Economist Intelligence Unit in this month’s issue of Bloomberg magazine. Pakistan shares this ranking with Romania. Morgan Stanley’s Tim Drinkall believes that Pakistan has instituted policy changes that will trigger faster economic growth. It is largely believed Pakistan is grossly underperforming for many reasons such as terrorism, but other factors constant an increased integration of women in the workforce can have Pakistan turbo its way ahead on the frontier economies ranking and even join the emerging economies ranking.

About 18 years ago, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows were disproportionately directed to developed countries and in 2013 approximately 60% of FDI inflows are to emerging economies.  Asia is rising and Pakistan can rise with its tide, provided we adopt those very practices we need to and abandon those that are pushing us to the abyss of a desperate scavenging economy.

In Pakistan women don’t just hit a glass ceiling because they are perceived to exit out of the workforce in their child bearing years, instead, here women face a wall when entering the workforce to begin with. The struggle of getting women in the board rooms is a more momentous one; before this we need to allow their resume to be accepted by recruiters in the first place. Likewise the colossal wage gaps that exist between men and women is again a fight that comes later, first we need to battle for women’s contribution to be compensated at all given the feudal servitude that exists for women domestic workers.

The struggle for gender equity, wherever it starts must begin at the religio-cultural perception of a woman as a product of a man’s will or whim.

The few women who finally make it to the professional workforce are asked by their in-laws to leave when they are married. There could be no greater reinforcement of the above premise of women being a product of men. We may as well have emerged from a rib.

There are however those mortal women who out of their will choose to return to Pakistan armed with a posh accent and an ivy league or such equivalent degree, get married and instead of enterprising some great idea, choose to design bags and shoes. The opportunity cost of circulating money within a social elite class as opposed to vertically across strata is huge. The symbolic message it sends to the ideal of women unifying for a singular cause is even worse.

With advanced countries like Japan in a state of panic because they need to increase their women participation from 60% to at least 90%, we ought to be in a state of absolute panic because we have only about 24% participating in the Pakistan workforce. Given the astounding numbers below the poverty line this dismal number is even more alarming and a greater cause of concern.

Concern rarely begs for a sense of responsibility. No one talks about the elephant in the room of growing Islamism bringing all such women’s integration efforts to a screeching halt. There is limited media air time, efforts and funds dedicated to this cause when the government is negotiating with a group that believes that a women even appearing in public space is an act of sacrilege.

There needs to be a realization that central to this crisis is women: their ability to make decisions and above all be economically empowered. It has tremendous implications on the health of our future. This is not negotiable, unless of course we want to lose our economic feet to stand on, and cripple our foreign and domestic policy. This hurts men and women equally.

Women’s empowerment is the only thing that can save Pakistan. It needs to be catered with more urgency than the attention we pay to moralizing society.

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