Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Unending despair: women's access versus control over finances

Globally, women are demanding for equal wages compared to men, but in Pakistan, even if a woman is earning an equal wage, her right to her own income is mostly not recognised. At the most she is gifted a gold or silver trinket, which too is either pawned or sold in the market if the man requires money at any stage.
But if she is the wife of a landless farmer, her situation is worse. Her existence is merely to assist her husband who works for a feudal on a farm where he is indentured along with his whole family, including women and children. These women and children merely add to the number of hands the head of the household has- their wages and power is zilch.
Though financial independence varies between rural and urban women as well as educated, less educated and illiterate women. Workforce participation is the highest among women with no education or those who have completed secondary school, whereas women with primary school education remain the least employed.
Perhaps this is one reason that participation of women in agriculture is higher compared to the other sectors. In Sindh, where the feudal system is still present on a larger scale, women have no bargaining power, whereas in Punjab, where landholdings have been diluted, mostly due to inheritance laws, there is a bit of room to bargain for women. Nevertheless, women do not get to have their fair share in the produce in any case; and on top of that, are held back by social obligations, including the burden of being the 'family honour'.
Hanging onto this delicate thread called ‘honour’, many women are continuously deprived of their right to refuse to work for a particular landlord, often at the risk of abuse and even rape. Worst is the situation of women who are part of the 1.7 million bonded labourers.
Many peasants are paid with a share in the crop produce, with a minimal monetary compensation, which can be as low as Rs5 per 40 kilogram of sugarcane, or Rs5 plus three kilogram of tomatoes for a day’s worth of picking tomatoes at a local landlord’s farm.
Experts have claimed countless of times that this situation can be mitigated via land reforms and distribution.
In March this year, Sindh government has reportedly distributed 55,439 acres of land among 6,000 people in 17 districts, which included 4,000 women and 1,200 men.
However, there are cases where the Sindh government allotted land to some women farmers, who later were stuck amid court cases brought against them by landlords who claim the allotted land as their property. This disparity, despite that women contribute close to 60 per cent in the rural agricultural economy, is one of the major reasons of rural to urban migration, which has its own downsides within the urban development sector. Nevertheless, urbanisation has its positives too.
With rapid urbanisation, participation of women in the workforce is increasing gradually; but again, many women, whether they work in a village or a city, do not necessarily have financial independence.
Many women, who have migrated to the cities, work as either home-based workers or domestic help, having no worker rights. Categorised under undocumented economy, their situation is dismal, with women getting Rs10 for a chickankari dress worth Rs3,000 at a flashy retail store; Rs17 a day for peeling 10 kilogram of garlic; or working eight hours a day as a maid at some NGO worker’s home for food (if lucky) and Rs1,200 a month.
But from there, it is downhill since the power over these resources is automatically taken over by the male members of a household, making a woman more vulnerable.
Though there is a difference between women working in menial jobs, and those in the white-collar sector, the access versus control matter remains.
One comes across countless stories of women domestic workers forcefully being relieved of their income by a male member; or stories of women working as teachers, doctors, engineers who have to give up their right to their own earnings due to the manoeuvrings of their partners.
Data of women’s workforce participation shows the most disproportionate numbers compared to men, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. But what is missing in the statistics is the information regarding how many of these women actually have power over the resources they generate or have been bequeathed via inheritance or any other means.
Between 2010 and 2012 the World Bank (WB) recorded female workforce participation of the total number of women in Pakistan at 24 per cent, which increased to 25 per cent in 2013, whereas male participation remained stable at 83 per cent throughout the same periods. This means female workforce participation in Pakistan has only been above Afghanistan within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Among SAARC countries during the same period, women have made up the lowest percentage of workers in Afghanistan at 15 per cent in 2010 and 16 per cent between 2011 and 2013. India has been slightly ahead of Pakistan with 29 per cent in 2010, 28 per cent in 2011 and 27 per cent in both 2012-13, showing a downward trend. The highest and most stable number of women workers has been recorded in Nepal by the WB at 80 per cent during the same period, followed by Bhutan at 66 per cent between 2010 and 2012, and 67 per cent in 2013. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, during the same period have remained stable at 57 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Maldives is at par with Bangladesh and has a little more than double the female participation rate compared to Pakistan with 55 per cent in 2010 and 56 per cent between 2011 and 2013.
Though political parties talk of women participation in politics, and NGOs focus on women’s health, education, violence against women, and economic empowerment, the fact remains that financial independence of most women is a distant dream.
Economic empowerment of women is a game-changer in a staunchly patriarchal society. One of the most fundamental attack on a woman is deprivation of her financial rights, which is followed by food security, burden of extra manual labour, lack of reproductive rights and, more often than not, psychological battery regarding lack of financial means.

Published in The News at: