The race to the bottom | Political economics

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he World Economic Forum recently published Global Gender Gap Index for 2022, which assesses the current state of gender parity in 146 countries across four key dimensions (economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment). Unsurprisingly, Pakistan sits at an unenviable 145e square.

Afghanistan narrowly beat Pakistan in this race to the bottom. Iceland, Finland and Norway took first, second and third place respectively. Bangladesh ranked 71st on the index.

Why is Pakistan one of the worst countries in the world in terms of gender gap? Some valuable information can be obtained by zooming in on the individual constituents that make up the index.

The Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) is a simple average of four sub-indices: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Each sub-index is a weighted average of the underlying indicators converted into gender ratios. For example, if the share of women in the labor force is 20% in a country, the ratio is 0.25.

Consider two illustrative cases. If the share of women in the labor force is 50%, the ratio is one, which implies full parity. If the female share is 0%, the ratio is zero, implying complete disparity. It is important to mention here the methodological caveat. What if women did better than men in some countries? If the share of women in the labor force is 80%? The resulting ratio would be four, but the GGGI assigns it a value of one. This is called data truncation. This is because it is considered better to err on the side of favoring women.

The following paragraphs list the indicators associated with each of the four dimensions and give Pakistan’s relative ranking in parentheses.

The first sub-index, economic participation and opportunities, consists of five indicators, including the labor force participation rate (145e), equal pay for similar work (141st), estimated earned income (86e ), legislators, senior civil servants and executives (143rd) and professional and technical workers (130e).

The second sub-index of the level of education includes four indicators, including the literacy rate (133rd), enrollment in primary education (missing data), enrollment in secondary education (124e) and enrollment in higher education (102n/a).

The third sub-index, namely health and survival, is composed of two indicators, including the sex ratio at birth (141st) and healthy life expectancy (140e).

The final political empowerment sub-index consists of three indicators, including women in parliament (97e), women in ministerial positions (114e), and the number of years with a female/male head of state in the last 50 years (31st).

As can be seen, Pakistan’s ranking in the individual dimensions is not uniform. Pakistan ranks 145e135e143rdand 95e regarding economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, respectively. Pakistan has done relatively better in the dimension of political empowerment.

Pakistan ranked 31st in years with a female/male head of state indicator because Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister for about five years. If the effect of this episode of 26 years ago were partially eliminated, Pakistan would be at the lowest in the world when it comes to the gender gap. Pakistan also lags behind the world in the dimensions of health and survival as well as economic participation and opportunity.

It could be argued that each society has a unique worldview regarding the attributes of a desirable life. Some goals considered desirable in one society may be considered undesirable in another. Therefore, if we include other indicators in the GGGI index, the relative position of Pakistan could be radically different.

Such reasoning may have merit in part because all indices are subjective by default. However, there is broad consensus on the desirability of most of the indicators and the four dimensions of the GGGI.

It may be instructive to note that Pakistan’s performance is equally dismal on other well-being indices, such as the Rule of Law Index (130 out of 139 countries) and the Human Development Index ( 154 out of 189 countries). Thus, the strong correlation between the various indices of human development seems to converge towards a system of fundamental social values.

It may also be instructive to investigate further what explains the economic and health outcomes for women in Pakistan, which are among the worst in the world. Two interrelated factors stand out clearly. The first concerns a lamentable failure of the state to ensure a minimum standard of living for vulnerable population groups.

In Pakistan, the social security and old-age benefit system is only accessible to public sector employees and to a fraction of private sector employees. (By the way, recruitment, even in the public sector, has increasingly been on a contractual basis in recent years.) For the rest of the employees (who make up the majority of the workforce), social security benefits and of old age are unheard of. It is rational to seek other sources of security in old age, and a key source of economic security in old age are children. The gender gap may be rooted in this mundane preference for children as a safeguard against economic insecurity.

The preference for sons is widespread in Pakistan. This could well be the first trigger for a huge gender gap. Social customs and the patriarchal structure of Pakistani society reinforce the preference for sons. Society views women as vulnerable and in need of protection from male family members. Isn’t that an expensive proposition? This is because it requires a significant investment of time. Sons can go to school alone but daughters must be accompanied.

The very thought of a female family member being harassed on the way to school or college is one of the worst nightmares for parents and families. This is not an ordinary denial of the right to freedom of movement. Harassment of women has far greater implications. Society has a strange way of seeing a victim of bullying with the ensuing social consequences for the rest of his or her life.

The judicial arm of the state is not known to have an effective deterrent effect. The combined effect of lack of social security, an inept judicial system and distorted moral values ​​creates and accentuates gender gaps.

Several simultaneous interventions are needed to close the gender gap. The first intervention concerns the responsibility of the State to ensure the economic security of all citizens. Providing economic security for a population of 230 million is easier said than done. When people are insured against impoverishment, there will be less dependency on children in general and male children in particular, leading to less gender discrimination at the household level and a narrowing of the gender gap. between the sexes.

This is the type of demographic pattern observable in most developed countries. The desire for economic security through male children is the primary driver of large family size. The oft-cited reason for large family size, unmet demand for contraceptives, comes far behind.

For the economic security of a massive population, the government needs massive investments in human capital for increased productivity to improve living standards. It is imperative to shift the focus from safety to public welfare. This requires, among other things, a radical change in foreign policy.

Making the judicial arm of the state an effective deterrent is another prerequisite for changing social gender norms. The current rate of convictions in harassment and gender-based violence cases is hardly reassuring for the general feeling of security.

When people are convinced that the state can and will punish those who transgress boundaries, women will no longer be seen as a liability. When people are convinced that the state can take care of their needs and guarantee a desirable standard of living, the preference for sons will fade. Therein lies the key to closing the gender gap in Pakistan.


The author is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS Islamabad University, Lahore Campus


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