PAKISTAN: ‘As a result of patriarchal norms, women experience discrimination at all levels’

Farrah NazCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Pakistani civil society’s role in eliminating inequality and malnutrition with Farrah Naz, country director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). 

GAIN is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. It works with governments, businesses and civil society to transform food systems so that they deliver more nutritious foods for all people, especially the most vulnerable including children, adolescents and women.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women and girls in Pakistan?

There is little evidence of how COVID-19 has affected women in Pakistan, but this is a country where the gender gap is huge – the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Pakistan 151 out of 153 countries – and there is a general understanding that in the presence of such gaps, disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic have a potential to have a disproportionate negative effect on women and girls.

A situation analysis by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems pointed out that women make up 70 per cent of frontline health workers, who are more susceptible to contracting the virus. Similarly, women are a large part of the informal labour force, including domestic and home-based workers (HBWs), 75 per cent of whom were estimated to have suffered economic impacts due to loss of work. Women in the garment and textile industry also lost work due to lockdowns. Due to lack of registration, less than one per cent of women who run micro, small and medium food-related enterprises in the informal sector had access to financial support as their businesses were affected by lockdowns.

A recent report shows that there are 12 million HBWs who earn around 3,000-4,000 rupees a month (approx. US$17-22), who will face multidimensional challenges including income insecurity, lack of social protection and increased vulnerability in times of crisis. It also indicates that as of 2017, 26 per cent of all microfinance loans had been taken out by women. The pandemic may affect their ability to pay them back, which could result in higher interest rates, penalties and reduced access to future loans.

In the context of school closures, girls have generally been given more household responsibilities than boys. Prolonged closures could exacerbate inequalities in educational attainment due to higher rates of female absenteeism and lower rates of school completion. As schools reopen, many girls will find it difficult to balance schoolwork and increased domestic responsibilities.

The Sustainable Social Development Organization, a CSO based in Islamabad, reported a 200 per cent increase in domestic violence cases in Pakistan in the early days of the pandemic. A 25 per cent increase in domestic violence was reported in eastern Punjab, while 500 domestic violence cases were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after the lockdown. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 399 murder cases were reported in March 2020 alone. In the federal capital, Islamabad, there were thousands of allegations of torture of women, but the National Commission on the Status of Women has remained silent on this.

There is not enough safe and nutritious food and access to routine health services is limited. Pregnant women and children from vulnerable sectors have been severely affected and it is estimated that about 150,000 additional children across Punjab will be malnourished due to the pandemic.

As usual, although women actively participate in harvesting food and have the primary responsibility for cooking meals, they often eat last and least, after male family members have been served. This is because social norms don’t value them equally and their interests are not prioritised.

On top of this, the Ehsaas Ration Programme, which provides a subsidy that can be used to purchase staples such as flour and cooking oil, requires beneficiaries to have a national identity card, which women are much less likely to have than men. Across Pakistan, at least 12 million fewer women than men have such cards.

How has civil society responded to these challenges?

Civil society had tried to increase its humanitarian interventions to address not only pandemic-related health and safety issues but also the practical needs of vulnerable populations in terms of access to basic food and non-food items. Major networks of international and national organisations, governmental and civil society, have worked together to reach millions of people during the pandemic. Many CSOs focused on the needs of women, girls and transgender people.

Many CSOs also concentrated their efforts on addressing domestic violence. While there have always been domestic violence helplines, new ones quickly emerged. And many in the private sector focused specifically on providing counselling services to address the mental health issues that people faced during extended lockdowns. 

How has GAIN responded to the impacts of COVID-19 in local communities in Pakistan?

In line with its mission of ensuring access to nutritious food, especially to the most vulnerable people, GAIN focused on keeping food markets working. Our work had several components.

First, we worked with food-related small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that were struggling to survive, and especially with those that were owned or led by women, and provided small survival grants to selected SMEs.

Second, we provided grants to enable employers in the food industry to support workers’ health and nutrition through emergency food support. Twenty thousand food workers and their families benefitted through this programme in Pakistan – and many more in other low- and middle-income countries where we work.

Third, we cooperated with social protection programmes to ensure that food and ration distribution include fortified staple foods for the most vulnerable families and individuals dependent on food and ration distribution networks. Over 8 million meals were fortified in six districts across Pakistan. 

Fourth, we worked with urban food system stakeholders and traditional markets in urban areas to ensure that safe and nutritional foods remained available and accessible to people. We addressed issues of food safety in markets and for consumers through awareness campaigns and the distribution of masks and sanitisers, and helped design policy options to increase the resilience of the food system. We implemented this programme in two cities of Pakistan. 

What are the main women’s rights issues in Pakistan, and how is civil society working to bring them into the policy agenda?

A lot of progress on women’s rights has been made over the years, but the status of women continues to vary considerably across classes, regions and the rural/urban divide, due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal and feudal social formations on women’s lives.

Overall, improvements are spreading through Pakistan: for instance, an increasing number of women are literate and educated. CSOs and religious groups are increasingly denouncing violence against women. The All-Pakistan Ulema Council, which is the largest group of religious clergies in Pakistan, has issued a fatwa – that is, a legal ruling – against so-called ‘honour killings’. Courts have answered the call by women’s rights advocates and are delivering harsher punishments for violent crimes against women.

Pakistan has adopted several key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights – including the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Sustainable Development Goals. Some domestic laws have also been enacted to protect the rights of women.

However, gender inequality remains a prominent issue, as revealed by most development indicators. Child marriage is high: 21 per cent of girls under 18 are already married. Limited access to education heavily impacts on Pakistani children, especially girls.

Women from the lower classes are often only able to work informally from home: 12 out of the estimated 20 million HBWs in Pakistan are women. Women are estimated to account for 65 per cent of the contribution of HBWs to Pakistan’s economy, but most receive low wages and are denied legal protection and social security.

The CSO White Ribbon Pakistan reported that between 2004 and 2016, 47,034 women faced sexual violence and there were over 15,000 registered ‘honour crimes’. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index Report ranks Pakistan second to last regarding domestic violence rates. But at 2.5 per cent, conviction rates for these crimes are exceedingly low.

And although Pakistan was one of the first Muslim countries to have a female prime minister, it currently has only 20.6 per cent female representation in the lower house of parliament with an even lower rate, 18.3 per cent, in the upper house.

In sum, as a result of patriarchal norms that subordinate women to men, women experience multiple forms of discrimination at all levels, from their everyday home life to political participation on the national stage. 

Many CSOs are working to promote women’s and girls’ rights in Pakistan. Although the situation remains tough and there is much backlash in response to women being vocal about their rights, the strong women’s movement of Pakistan is getting stronger and making sure women’s rights issues remain alive and progress continues to happen.

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

On IWD, GAIN offices in Africa, Asia and Europe are continuing to do the work that needs to be done while also taking the time to recognise women’s achievements in improving food systems.

As we know only too well, women’s contributions are often undervalued, unpaid and overlooked. This is even more pernicious in connection to food systems, where women are key leaders at every step of the way – as farmers, processors, wageworkers, traders and consumers. And still women and girls are often the last members of a household that get to eat.

In 2021, for the second year in a row, the Global Health 50/50 report – an annual survey of public, private, civil society and international organisations operating in the global health space – ranked GAIN’s gender and equity-related policies very high. This is because GAIN is fully committed to ensuring diversity throughout its programmes. We are currently developing a new programmatic gender policy to ensure women involved in food systems are given the same opportunities as men and their rights are always fully respected. We have also purposefully diversified our board and senior leadership, including our country directors. Our board has recently committed to seeking gender balance, meaning that it will have to make sure that at least half its voting members are women. And we are one of the few organisations that has a young female Partnership Council member. All of this is what gives us the right perspective in addressing nutrition challenges that differentially affect women and girls.

Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GAIN through its website or Facebook page. 



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