According to ILO report of 2009-10, globally, number of women employed grew by 18.4% over the past decade and by the end of 2007 has crossed the figure of 1.2 billion, but at the same time number of unemployed women also increased from 70.2 million to 81.6 million almost 60% over the same period due to low female employment – to- population ratio. The report also reveals that more than half of all working women are deployed in informal sector or in vulnerable jobs entailing low value jobs, low salary and low product quality/standard if self employed. In South Asian countries in particular Pakistan, India and Bangladesh women comprise almost 70% of their workforce in informal sector number of which has further swelled due to onslaught of COVID 19.
Despite entry of 200 million women in gainful employment during last two decades improvement in status of women in labor market throughout the world, inequality, regarding nature of jobs performed by workforce gender wise is glaringly witnessed and also has failed to narrow down gender gaps substantially at work place (being one of the basic aim of removing gender disparities), which is essential for promoting decent work for women empowering them socially and advancing the cause of economic and social development for all.
Regarding situation in Pakistan women comprise only 25% of the total workforce. This excludes self-employed and unpaid family workers, which if taken into account figure comes to 40%. No doubt rate of growth of female labor force is showing rising trend as quoted in World Bank Report, yet still share of women in total labor force of the country is lowest even among South Asian countries. It is apparent from Global Gender Gap report of 2020 issued by World Economic Forum, which has painted a very bleak picture of Pakistan particularly regarding women involvement ratio in economic activities by placing it at 153 position among the 156 countries surveyed. Anyhow country has all intentions to raise female work force ratio from 25% to 45% by 2025.
Further it is to be noted that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the economic status of women all over the globe. The number of women in informal sector would further increase due to job losses in formal sector. In many countries first round of layoffs has been very sever in service sector including retail, tourism and hospitality where women are over represented. As stated above 70% of women deployed in informal sector, their nature of work for earning livelihood depends on public space and social interaction, which are now being restricted through strict rules of SOPs to contain the spread of pandemic.
Besides that among the disadvantaged segments of population women from low income families are found more vulnerable because of their generally marginalized status in social set up; glaring disparities in their social standing compared to men; low level placement with regard to literacy and education; lack of mobility; disadvantaged position with regard to access to institutional credit and other economic opportunities most important being lack of assets ownership. Further vast number of women workers is not often recognized as gainfully employed. They are either unpaid contributing to family work or own account workers rather than wage/salary earners. No doubt their percentage has reduced from 56.1% to 51.7% since 1997, but present international worrisome economic situation prevailing since last one decade and above all ruthless impact of COVID 19 since start of 2020, particularly being faced by low income families in the form of steep rise in cost of living, growing unemployment with stagnant or rather depleting economic activity due to economic mismanagement at all levels and also on account of growing fears of insecurity has reversed the declining trend of poverty stricken population, which in recent past was claimed fallen to 25%, but now percentage of population living on dollar a day has exceeded 40%. Hence families thus affected, including female members of the families would drift to vulnerable jobs for their survival with low level of remunerations and even that without legal and social protection.
Despite some progress achieved in recent past with regard to empowering women, lessening gender disparities and fall in contributing family workers and rise in on account workers in whole of South Asia including Pakistan this shift between employment sector has not reduced the proportion of women in the region in so-called vulnerable employment and in Pakistan alone 8 out of 10 women are deployed in informal sector. However, these women despite several constraints still play a major role in the household economy and providing for their families, but fear of perpetual lack of access to economic opportunities in pandemic situation and absence family and community support causing consistency in socioeconomic marginalization, which in turn has increased the hazards of vulnerability of poor women getting engulfed in destructive and illegal activities.
Poor women living in rural and semi urban areas of the country possess varying skills relating to farming and non-farming jobs, which if appropriately harnessed can enhance women deployment in formal sector, generating economic activity for them to supplement family income and thus improving quality of life. For commercializing the skills of this disadvantaged class of women their direct access to higher value markets, knowledge about the mechanism and intricacies of marketing, use of digitalization for marketing and establishing business links and most importantly consent and support of male members of the families are the pre-requisites for addressing the many socio economic constraints these women normally face while managing their small businesses.
Pakistan’s rural women for their all out engagement in farming and non-farming businesses for their subsistence and support to family income needs to have access to above stated facilities/opportunities without any discrimination. Gender based discrimination is so rampant in rural culture that women working on farms are given most laborious and monotonous work to do. Cotton picking and rice seedling task being highly energy consuming are performed by women farmers. For off farm activities also they are given hard jobs involving less skill.
There are also increasing number of rural women working as self-employed outside agriculture in low paying trades and services. A lot of these services are family efforts and division of work between men and women are explicitly defined. Despite significant involvement of women in agriculture, contributing to country’s economic growth is not visible in official sources of data/statistics. Apart from lack of family support and cultural inhibitions lack of assets ownership is another factor impeding women to achieve economic empowerment through participation in any formal sector/regulated economic pursuit. In this regard Government of Sindh initiative to announce, almost a decade ago for earmarking sizable cultivable land for women haris (farmers) if implemented in letter and spirit will pave the way for both economic and social empowerment of rural women.
Urban based female workforce deployed in vulnerable jobs is either home based workers, which includes home based micro businesses or piece rate workers bringing work from outside both from registered and non-registered manufacturing business houses. They work for longer hours, but in turn get low remuneration and are totally deprived of job security. Quite a number of unskilled women working in manufacturing concerns on daily wage basis are also deprived of job security and legal protection available under prevailing labor laws to regular employees of the establishment. In order to reduce vulnerability among this segment of population and divert women work force from informal to formal sector issues like availability of institutional credit, training facilities for development and updating their business and marketing skills and personal and business security are to be addressed.
Recent move by State Bank of Pakistan for enhancing financial inclusion for women and liberal financing programs launched to enable women to meet challenges of enormous unemployment caused by pandemic are the steps in right direction.
No doubt hectic efforts are on both in private and public sector to expand outreach of both microfinance and conventional banks for financing micro businesses of women both in rural and urban sector, but apart from providing credit micro finance banks need to arrange for skill development training programs particularly for village and semi urban based small business owners to ensure good quality of their services/products, which in turn helps enhancing the possibility of their access to high value markets. There is growing demand for Pakistani crafts, bangles, jewellery, embellish/designer garments, khadi/hand woven cotton and woolen products and leather goods etc both nationally and internationally. In this regard Women Chambers of Commerce and Industry now operating independently at least in Karachi and Lahore can facilitate marketing of women entrepreneur products by setting up product display centers and arranging exhibitions both within and outside the country. Similarly Pakistan Trade Development Authority must take initiative to promote marketing of products of this deprived class of business women. Hence by creating enabling business environment for such disadvantaged business women to undertake viable business propositions the size of informal economy can be reduced.