Pakistan: Amidst a world of feminized poverty, women reduced to economic nonentities Print E-mail

 Pakistan ~ Sunday April 14 2013


“Poverty has a woman’s face”

Hilda Saeed writes about how Pakistani women’s lives are affected by their economic deprivation

Hajra, Khatija and Sakina: three friends and neighbours living in Karachi’s Lyari area. Hajra lives alone with her three daughters: her husband left her when the youngest child was merely six months old, because she couldn’t give birth to a son. Khatija’s husband is as good as absent: he’s a drug addict. Survival, with a little daughter and a son, is one terrifying day after another. She lives in dread that her son may adopt the same path as his father. Sakina is divorced, without support from her former husband. She continues working to support her children; they’re not yet at the age where they could start earning a living.

Hajra and her friends are just a few of the millions of Pakistani women whose lives are constrained by extreme poverty. Studies, and even just observation, frequently highlight women’s disproportionately high representation among the country’s poor. As Dr Mahbub ul Haq once put it, “Women have been reduced to economic nonentities.”

Globally, poverty remains a challenge: the World Bank estimates that 1.29 billion people live in absolute poverty; the sad fact is that about 70 per cent of them are women. In Pakistan, it is no different, but without a national census, it isn’t even possible to gauge the correct picture. Poverty is difficult to quantify: the methodology used by the government has been challenged by the World Bank and the UNDP, while independent organisations consider poverty to be above 28.3pc.

However, according to the Human Development Index, 2009, 60.3pc of Pakistan’s population lives on $2 per day. According to Unesco, 71pc of eligible girls did not attend secondary school in 2009. Gender discriminatory practices shape poverty: as expected, more women are at the suffering end. They suffer poverty of opportunities far more than men. Poverty gives rise to social powerlessness and political disenfranchisement, and these add to the vulnerability of the poor.

The reasons for such high poverty levels are several: corruption, illicit capital flight, debt and loan conditionalities, high defence expenditures, and now, extremism.
Those are the general ones.

To quote Tahira Abdullah, “Poverty has a woman’s face.” Women face the triple burden of child-bearing, child rearing, and domestic unpaid labour; they have been denied opportunities for growth, are without access to adequate healthcare, education or income, and simultaneously forced to live in the tight bind of culture and tradition.

Their poverty is multidimensional; not only of lack of income, but also of nutrition and health; they are denied education and the ability to earn an adequate income, their vulnerability prevents them from advancing their innate capabilities. To add to that, gender biases and patriarchal/misogynist mindsets permeate every aspect of their lives. Living with discrimination and gender-based violence is a daily reality for many.

Poverty levels in the country have crept upwards and are considered to be among the highest in South Asia. Unfortunately, the Planning Commission does not reveal the exact data on female poverty. Women bear the brunt of appallingly high socio-economic disparities; their poverty extends from the small and large denials within the home to the wider denials they experience in the community. Often they’re not even recognised as heads of households; their labour in the agricultural sector is largely unremunerated; they remain exploited, deprived of income.

The Economic Survey of Pakistan barely acknowledges their presence and their contribution ­ the female labour force participation rate is the lowest in the South Asian region. A survey by Yasir Amin (in Economistan, April 12, 2012) noted that women’s contribution to the labour force had actually shrunk from 33pc in 2000 to 21pc in 2011.

The risks of increasing poverty grow in parallel with the number of women-headed households. Single mothers are at highest risk, as are their children, who are likely to be deprived of adequate schooling and nutrition. Like most women, they have no alternative to poorly paid, informal employment.

It is no surprise that women are over-represented among the country’s poor; discrimination against them exists at all levels, within the family, with its unequal gendered division of responsibilities and labour, inequality in access to healthcare, to schooling, to social protection. Tradition ordains that their mobility be restricted.

Unsurprisingly, few poor women have hope of escaping this poverty as there are so many odds stacked against them. Despite laws that favour them, even richer women are regularly denied land inheritance by emotional coercion, forced marriage and even by ‘marriage’ to the Quran.

The current political situation prevailing in the country presents a mixed picture for women’s progress and development. On the one hand, there are several forward-looking laws and amendments, widespread provision of safety nets like the Benazir Income Support Programme and increased school enrolment for girls. On the other hand is the snail’s pace at which the bureaucracy moves to implement those laws. Then again, there’s society’s stubbornly ‘eyes shut’ attitude to women’s rights and progress, the lack of recognition that women’s progress requires an acceptance of their constitutionally guaranteed equal status as citizens of this country.

If women are to progress and participate effectively in the economy, they must receive equal education, equal training, in rural and urban sectors and equal dignity and income. Pakistan cannot achieve progress on the efforts of less than half its population.
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  Pakistan ~ Sunday April 14 2013

The glass ceiling

To decide whether it is poverty that leads to ill-health or poor heath that exacerbates poverty is like trying to solve the puzzle of what came first: chicken or egg. Regardless of what comes first, the link between health and poverty is deep-rooted and it has been firmly established that one leads to, or exacerbates, the other.

While the health of both men and women is adversely affected by poverty, higher proportion of women are affected by its effects because of increased poverty among women or what is termed as ‘feminisation of poverty’. But one of the factors of increased poverty in women is the immense or unique health problems they have to live with.

According to the World Health Organisation while health is one of the fundamental rights of every individual, many women across the world are being denied this basic right, and in many cases their health issues arise due to or are aggravated by their socio-economic condition. In most developed countries women lag behind men on virtually every social and economic indicator, and hence constitute a larger proportion of the poor.

Faced with gender bias from birth, especially when it comes to allocation of resources, due to their lower social status women have fewer opportunities to access healthcare. Since traditions relegate women and girls to the background, in many families, especially where food is limited, the choicest portions are given to men and boys and women eat last, often surviving on leftovers; because of this they suffer from anaemia and chronic malnutrition, which increases their susceptibility to infection which further compromises their health. According to the National Nutrition Survey of Pakistan over 35 per cent women are nutrient deficient.

Despite an extensive Expanded Programme on Immunisation, and immunisation against polio and Hepatitis B, outreach to all parts of the country has not been fully achieved. Lack of immunisation leads to disability, leaving the person unable to work, thus pushing him further down the poverty ladder. It is rightly said that while disability is crippling, if a woman is disabled it is a lethal combination; a disabled woman is sure to miss out all chances of improving her life and is forced to lead a miserable life.

Another factor that contributes to women’s ill-health is early marriage; despite the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 early marriages account for 25-30pc of all marriages in the country. Due to this, fertility rates especially in rural areas and among the poor are still quite high. Only 30pc of women use contraceptives while there is a 30pc unmet need. Repeated pregnancies, too early and too late, take a toll on women’s health. When they don’t need more children but have no access to family planning services they resort to unsafe abortion, which is often detrimental to their health.

The case of S.A. can be taken as an example: S.A. got married at the age of 14 and within a period of 10 years had eight children. She didn’t want any more children because she could barely feed them working in three homes, but she was not aware of family planning and didn’t know where to go. While trying to get an abortion when she got pregnant again she almost lost her life. Unable to work for months she and her children survived on charity and neighbours’ kindness, who like S.A. were not financially strong.

To add to this women in our country often are either not aware of its importance or do not have access to proper maternal health facilities; this further impacts their health. The mortality rate in Pakistan is about 260 per 100,000 live births, and is nearly twice as high in rural areas than in urban areas. Poor maternal health due to repeated pregnancies also hinders women from pursuing productive pursuits, thus they remain poor.

Due to social and cultural practices men are considered breadwinners and women unpaid caregivers. As a result of women’s child rearing and caregiving responsibilities they are hardly able to pursue a career and do not have an income of their own. Since she has to rely on her husband she often ignores her health needs and suffers silently.

Even when a woman enters the waged labour market it is mostly low-paying work and of lower status. Themselves suffering from poor health and burdened with caregiving responsibilities, it might be difficult for them to access healthcare for themselves or their children as they might have mobility issues and also because they can’t frequently stay away from work as in that case they are faced with loss of job, which pushes them further into the clutches of poverty.

Whatever may be the cause of ill-health, women who are suffering from poor health are more vulnerable to slide down the poverty ladder. Not only they themselves but their children also suffer from the consequences of poor health and poverty. If women enjoy better health status they can not only take better care of their children and families and make better use of available resources. They will also be able to take up some means of employment to supplement the family income, thus bringing themselves and their family out of poverty and misery.

In a nutshell it can be concluded safely that women’s health is central to poverty alleviation. If we want to reduce poverty taking care of women’s health needs is imperative.