“WHAT comfortable stereotypes we have created: ‘It is men who carry the major burden of economic work on this planet. They are the breadwinners. Women’s work carries no economic value.’ Such work may be essential but banish the thought that it should ever enter national income accounts, or even surface in separate satellite accounts. What a successful conspiracy to reduce women to economic nonentities.”
— Dr Mahbub-ul Haq
It is a well-masked secret that in Pakistan, poverty and hunger have a female face. Sometimes, the mask slips, as happened during a federal minister’s presentation to international donors and creditors at the Pakistan Development Forum a decade ago. I was present, shell-shocked. Thus, the world found out that three-quarters of Pakistan’s abject absolute poor are women and girls, i.e. for every four Pakistanis in poverty, three are women/girls.
Those at the helm of power in the Federal Ministry of Finance, especially its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper secretariat and the Planning Commission know this, but need to keep up the pretence of ignorance, to justify inaction. In fact, despite our right to information (Article 19-A), the finance ministry now even withholds from Pakistani citizens the national data on the poverty head count, by eliminating this vital information from the annual Pakistan Economic Survey (PES).
It is public knowledge that there is chronic intra-government disagreement, between the Planning Commission and finance ministry, on the definitions of poverty (inter alia, income poverty and daily calorific intake), its calculation methods and incidence. A respected former chief economist paid the price for his courageous refusal to endorse the then finance-cum-prime minister’s fudging of poverty head count figures, by arbitrarily changing the definitions and goalposts.
In the wilful absence of government data, academic research is utilised. The Oxford Poverty Research Institute and UN data parallel that of a number of highly respected, credible Pakistan-based research organisations, particularly the Mahbub-ul Haq Human Development Centre and the Social Policy and Development Centre.
From their independent research publications, poverty estimates are extrapolated, showing multi-dimensional poverty between 51-54 per cent of the population, and below-Rs200-a-day poverty ranging between 65-75 per cent.
The result of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and the UN’s collaborative national survey on food insecurity is alarming at 52 per cent; while food inflation has ranged between 18-25 per cent over the past five years. Even the government admits: “persistence of high double-digit inflation… has become intolerable;… it hurts the lowest income groups most, as 50-60 per cent [of their] expenditure is on food”.
And: “rich-poor gap increased in urban Pakistan … [The] poor before price increases may now be on verge of hunger and malnutrition, and those who were barely above the poverty line may have slipped back into poverty” (PES 2011).
The female/male poverty ratio of 3:1 is shameful. Taken together with Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq’s quantification of the Poverty of Opportunity Index at over 40 per cent (1990s), and the continuing gendered dimensions of multiple deprivations, including hunger, under-nutrition/malnutrition, ill-health, illiteracy, unemployment, unremunerated/ uncounted labour, inadequate shelter, absence of basic utilities; added to gender-based violence, injustice, social exclusion and powerlessness — the emerging picture is not pretty.
The evidence clearly shows that women experience poverty differently and are worse off than men in poverty, additionally suffering lack of documentation, assets ownership, creditworthiness, information, mobility, a triple burden of unremunerated work, lack of control over remuneration where it does exist; lack of recognition of women-headed households; ghettoisation, exploitation and lack of benefits for women rural agricultural workers and urban home-based workers — exclusion from the formal, organised sector labour force as defined.
That is just the tip of the iceberg of the outrage that is the feminisation of poverty in Pakistan. But does anyone care? And why should anyone care? Women and girls comprise around 48 per cent of our population and, as equal citizens, are entitled to equality of opportunity and of outcome, through affirmative action, as enshrined in the constitution’s Fundamental Rights and Principles of Policy.
This requires not just token monthly charitable handouts as meagre social protection and vote-insurance actions, but actual longer-term poverty eradication measures.
These include, starting with assets ownership, a minimum of one acre of agricultural land per rural woman and joint title ownership of family assets, leading to creditworthiness; increased food security through enhanced investments in agriculture, livestock, agribusiness, agri-extension training and inputs; revised inclusive definitions of women agricultural and home-based workers in the labour force, leading to their registration and eligibility for social security, health and education benefits; and inclusion of women’s contribution to GDP. We need to demonstrate that we do care, as we should…
This article was originally published at: Dawn
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.