The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The absence of female engagement in Pakistan’s economy represents a missed opportunity.

Pakistan’s economic landscape is poised for remarkable progress by embracing a more inclusive approach that harnesses the potential of its vast female population. Despite their significant contributions, particularly in the informal sector, women’s participation in the formal workforce remains critically low.

With a female labor force participation rate hovering around 20%—markedly below the global average of 38.8%—Pakistan has one of the lowest rates in South Asia. The potential economic benefits of increasing women’s employment are considerable, both for economic growth and gender equality. The absence of female engagement in Pakistan’s economy represents both a gender equity issue and a missed developmental opportunity.

Economically, if women participated equally with men, Pakistan’s GDP might rise by an astonishing 60% by 2025. Further estimates suggest that narrowing the gender gap in labor force participation could potentially boost GDP by a one-time 30%. Women comprise 38.8% of the global labor force but represent only about 20% in Pakistan, which is one of the lowest proportions in South Asia. According to the Global Gender Gap Index Report, Pakistan ranks 145th out of 156 nations in terms of women’s economic involvement and opportunity.

Several factors contribute to this underrepresentation. Traditional attitudes often confine women to domestic roles, making it challenging for them to pursue careers. A lack of safe transportation and prevalent workplace harassment further discourage women from entering the workforce. Although female literacy rates are improving, they still lag behind those of males, and unequal access to quality education and skills development programs restricts women’s career options and earning potential. Quality education equips women with the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in the modern workplace. Patriarchal structures often limit women’s control over household finances and access to loans, making it difficult for them to start businesses or invest in training. Financial constraints create a significant hurdle for women aspiring to be entrepreneurs or pursue higher education. Additionally, the absence of affordable and accessible childcare facilities forces many women, particularly mothers, to choose between work and family.

Pakistan’s political landscape has witnessed a growing number of women assuming prominent roles. Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim-majority nation, shattered glass ceilings and inspired generations of women. Following her legacy, figures like Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the first female Chief Minister of Pakistan, and Hina Rabbani Khar, the first woman to hold the office of Foreign Minister, continue to push boundaries.

These women, along with others like Sherry Rehman, a former Senator and current Ambassador to the United States, demonstrate the remarkable political contributions women are making in Pakistan. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is a global icon for her unwavering advocacy for girls’ education. Sports legend Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to summit K2, the world’s second-highest peak, is an inspiration for athletes everywhere. Fashion designer Maria B. has taken Pakistani fashion to the international stage, while filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a two-time Academy Award winner, sheds light on social issues through her powerful documentaries. These are just a few examples of the remarkable Pakistani women who are making a global impact. Their achievements showcase the immense talent and potential of Pakistani women, inspiring future generations to reach for the stars.

Bridging the gender gap requires a multi-pronged approach with long-term implications. Enacting gender-sensitive policies like flexible work hours, paid parental leave, and stricter laws against workplace harassment can create a more supportive environment for women. Robust legislation and enforcement mechanisms are crucial for ensuring women’s safety and well-being in the workplace.

Investing in girls’ education and providing targeted skills training programs in high-demand sectors like IT and healthcare will equip women for the modern workforce. Early childhood education lays the foundation for lifelong learning and career aspirations. Microfinance initiatives and programs that facilitate women’s access to loans and financial services can empower them to start businesses or pursue higher education. Financial independence allows women to make informed choices about their lives and careers.

Public awareness campaigns and community engagement initiatives can challenge stereotypes and promote the value of women’s economic participation. Shifting mindsets requires ongoing social dialogue and challenging deeply ingrained societal norms.

Empowering women is not just a social imperative but a sound economic strategy with far-reaching benefits. By dismantling the barriers that hold women back, Pakistan can achieve inclusive economic growth, create a more just and equitable society, and unlock its full potential to thrive in the 21st century. As Malala Yousafzai aptly states, “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” Let’s break down the barriers, invest in women, and empower them to drive Pakistan’s economic engine forward.

Manahil Jaffer is a International Relations scholar, with keen interest in international affairs, terrorism and strategic issues.