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As a nation over the last few years we may not have done better than average politically or economically, but where our failure is simply spectacular is the women's empowerment. Today, Pakistan is the second-worst country in the world for its gender inequality; it's only above Yemen - forget about rest of South Asia or the so-called 'heart of darkness' Africa. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries in the gender inequality index. A decade back, in 2006, when Pakistan was not a democracy, it ranked better; it was at 112. Since then our position on gender gap index has been steadily deteriorating. As a result, women of Pakistan today are distinctly disadvantaged as compared to men. The glaring gender imbalances obtaining today are symptomatic of the discrimination the females face as compared to men in the division of national resources and opportunities. The four sub-indexes under which the WEF report measures the gender inequality in a country are the Economic Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Political Empowerment and Health and Survival. Under the Economic Opportunity sub-index the report looks into the salaries the two genders get for the equal jobs, level of their participation and access to high-skilled employment. On the education front the report does admit that Pakistan is making progress on bridging up the secondary education enrolment gender gap, as well as on women's estimated earned incomes. But this is being offset by reversals on wage equality and female-to-male literacy ratio. On Health and Survival sub-index, Pakistan has done slightly better. But where failure is simply stark is their political empowerment, as Pakistan has been ranked 90th as compared to 87th the previous year. And that is no surprise given the fact no female holds the status of a federal minister, and in otherwise large provincial cabinets there is hardly any female gender presence.

What happens when gender gap widens? When women lack economic power not many girls go to school, their access to basic healthcare facilities remains restricted and there is higher maternal mortality rate. And then there is the strange paradox: while woman remains bereft of economic empowerment she is supposed to bear responsibility of meeting the basic needs of the family. We can't take it anymore; we need to shed this state of socio-political and economic paralysis. We need to devise our own specific means and methodology to overcome this yawning gender discrimination. In order to enhance female gender's economic participation the women should be given access to microfinance, as in Bangladesh, and resultantly it now tops in South Asia with gender gap ranking at 68. At the same time, there is the imperative to empower the elected women representatives. In Pakistan, we have not only fewer elected women MPs, even those in elected houses are supposed to only act as proxies by toeing the party lines. On their own they are hardly in a position to function as purpose-built caucuses and introduce their specific bills. Also, efforts should be made to promote community leadership roles for women, especially now that local government system has been revived. And last but not the least, a strong legislation should be put in place to protect women's rights as equal citizens in all matters of life. With gender gap as wide and frightening as it is Pakistan cannot move forward.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2016

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