The road less taken: Gender inequality in Afghanistan, Pakistan

The road less taken: Gender inequality in Afghanistan, Pakistan

Producer and presenter at a radio station in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

By Imrana Jalal

We have to help make it better to be a woman in Pakistan and Afghanistan, regardless of what our fathers think.

My Pashtun father says that Islam teaches that the road to heaven is paved with gold for those who educate their daughters. He would argue that Islam commands both men and women to be educated and would cite the gender-neutral hadith that says: “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.”

Despite these shibboleths, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have the widest gender gaps in primary and secondary enrollment in the Asia and Pacific region. In 2015, the annual Global Gender Gap Index by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan at 144 out of 145—the lowest but one and just above Yemen—in global gender equality, the fourth year in a row. And in 2012 UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index ranked Afghanistan at 147 out of 148, again, just one above Yemen. The 2016 Women, Business and the Law report shows that both Afghanistan and Pakistan are among the bottom 3 in having the most legal gender differences that impede women’s economic opportunities in the countries in Asia and the Pacific countries ADB works in.

Both are considered among the 5 most dangerous countries for women, as well as having the most dangerous transport systems for women globally by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. None of this augurs well for getting more women into the paid labor market as a means of improving their autonomy, agency, and economic empowerment.

According to Pakistan’s own Human Rights Commission, more than 1,000 women and girls are victims of “honor killings” every year while a World Health Organization-led survey from 2012 showed, alarmingly, that 75% of all interviewed women had experienced physical violence; 66% had been victims of sexual violence and 84% had experienced violence of some sort. A study by Global Rights estimates that almost nine out of 10 Afghan women face physical, sexual, or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage.

Every global gender index ranks Pakistan and Afghanistan around the bottom whether in economic opportunity and participation, or in health, as well as other categories.

What is most alarming is how Pakistan’s ranking is slipping in every category, even whilst the numbers of countries assessed have grown larger every year.

Fortunately, the story is not all bad. Pakistan has produced the likes of globally respected human rights advocates Hina Jilani, Khawar Mumtaz, Asma Jahangir, Farida Shaheed, and Malala Yousafzai, to name only a few, and not to mention the many Pakistani women in companies, institutions, and home who prove every day that they can hold their own anywhere. Afghanistan has Nasrin Oryakhil, Sakena Yacoobi, Sima Samar, Selay Ghaffar, and Massouda Jalal, to name only some members of a cadre of intrepid women who risk their lives daily. But they have succeeded notwithstanding the system, not because of it. They too likely had fathers (and mothers) like mine.

In recent times, Pakistan has also worked hard and passed several pieces of important legislation designed to improve women’s equality, including anti-sexual harassment and domestic violence laws. Pakistan is the only ADB member country that has legislation addressing sexual harassment in employment, education, as well as in public places, with an emphasis on the latter. These were passed into law with the orchestrated support of a critical mass of male and female legislators, and brilliant and strategic women’s rights groups.

Legislation is a necessary first step. But it will take more than decent laws to dismantle an entrenched patriarchal system built on systemic bias and ingrained cultural attitudes, and the improper use of religion as a justification to do so.

Of course these are not the only countries in our region in which women as a group are seriously disadvantaged, it is one of many.

So what can we do? We must support gender equality in Afghanistan and Pakistan by investing in girls’ education, technical and vocational education and training, economic empowerment initiatives, law and policy reform and basic infrastructure that decreases women’s time poverty.

And given that gender inequality has such a significant impact on the success of investments in education, health, transport and more, we must address this head on.

For our part, ADB is about to embark on a technical assistance project for Pakistan, Afghanistan and, likely, Tajikistan which aims to strengthen the capacity of investigating, prosecuting, and decision making bodies, and to equip women with adequate information to enhance their access to justice. Increased skills and increased legal literacy and awareness should help women and the institutions that are supposed to represent their interests to confront some of the issues I mentioned earlier.

On top of that, we should also directly and indirectly tackle the thorny issue of social norms and mores that entrench gender-based violence and gender inequality through policy-oriented research, and gender sensitivity training.

We have to help make it better to be a woman in Pakistan and Afghanistan, regardless of what our fathers think.

This will be but one small step closer to that road paved with gold.