Interview: The gender pay gap in Pakistan

Islamabad (Pakistan) ― We need to connect and create synergies between the women’s movement and struggles with existing labour movements in the country.

Gender equality at work has enormous social and economic significance. In today’s globalized world the issue of the gender pay gap has become more complex and needs greater attention. On the occasion of May Day, a celebration of labourers and the working classes round the globe, FES Pakistan interviewed two notable Pakistani feminists, Nasreen Azhar and Aliya Hashmi Khan.

Nasreen has been an activist for women’s rights and human rights for decades. Currently, she is the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Islamabad. Nasreen was awarded the Presidential Human Rights Defender award for her services to human rights. She is a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and is also a former member of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW).

Aliya has served as the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Director of the School of Economics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Her specialist topics are labour economics, human resource development and macroeconomics. Aliya was awarded the President’s Medal – Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah – in the category of Higher Education in recognition of services rendered for the economic empowerment of women through teaching and research.

Sidra Saeed, programme officer for FES in Pakistan, led the conversation on the shifting attention to gender wage gap in Pakistan, on the role of women in achieving wage equality and how it can be achieved.

How do you see the issue of the gender pay gap in the Pakistani context? Is it a different scenario from 30 years before? Or is the issue standing on the same level even today?

Aliya: 30 years back, the gender pay gap was not the topic of intense debate. But with the passage of time, as Pakistan has ratified various international covenants and International Labour Organization conventions, the issue has gained some significance. Similarly, successive waves of women’s movements in Pakistan also did not really take up this issue on a very passionate footing; probably because of the priority to take up issues relating to regressive legislation that were negatively impacting the lives of women in Pakistan

Although wage gap exists in both the private and public sectors, there is evidence that it is particularly strong in the private sector.

Interestingly, female employers in the private sector do not seem to address the gender gap any more conscientiously than their male counterparts. In my opinion, the role of both male and female employers in tackling the gender pay gap needs to be promoted on an equally strong footing. In this era of social media and numerous other technological advancements, women as e-entrepreneurs face more constraints and obstacles than their male counterparts. One of the reasons is their lack of market-relevant knowledge and exclusion from essential business information networks.

I can say that we have come a long way in terms of advocacy and awareness on the issue of gender pay gap. However, the legislative and policy development in this case and its implementation are still bigger challenges in the context of Pakistan as compared to other countries in Asia.

Nasreen: Gender pay gap is still a significant problem in Pakistan. This issue has existed throughout whether we refer back to 30 years back or try to analyze it in today’s 21st century. I also think that the emerging technology of new media tools like the Internet has opened new choices for women in particular to start their own work. The gender pay gap does not seem prevalent in that case, but a lack of proper skills or full exposure to the benefits from online work still mean women earn less than men. Women must get enough skills, exposure and understanding in relation to social media if they want to earn the same as men from it.

How can women play a role in closing the wage inequality based on gender, even when wage equality is in this scenario?

Aliya: Serious effort to organize women workers is the need of the hour. We must not forget that only the collective voice mechanism has the strength to press forward issues such as unsatisfactory working conditions in the direction of implementation of constitutional obligations and international commitments to labor standards. In the present times of growing informality of the labour market, as the workers’ movement and unionization are facing grave challenges, the unionization and organization of women is an extremely arduous but crucially important task.

Also, the women’s movement and struggles on other platforms need to be connected and synergized with parallel existing labour movements in the country. This will ensure solidarity and a force to fight against all types of discrimination at the workplace.

Nasreen: There is a strong feeling that working for women’s rights has become more the remit of the development sector now. And most of the time, this development work lacks the elements of equality, justice and socialism as its aims. Furthermore, the existing women’s coalitions, large or small, should develop linkages with the country’s labour movements. The idea of solidarity among various initiatives is no doubt a very important element.

Political voices of women’s struggles need to address the real political issues: The introduction of privatization in the world of work has undermined labour rights and damaged unionization. I feel that revival of the political left is necessary. This can be one way out to deal with the issues and problems faced by oppressed segments of the society, including women and labourers. ###

Sidra Saeed is Programme Officer at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Pakistan. For more information on the work by FES in Pakistan, contact info(at)fes-pakistan.org

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