Education or Employment – which is more critical for the empowerment of Pakistani women?

Zeba Sathar

In 1992, Larry Summers in his lecture at the Annual Pakistan Society of Development Economics titled, “Investing in all the people”, presented a compelling argument in favor of girls’ education for development. The main academic debate then was about whether it was a lack of demand or a short supply of girls’ schools that was keeping girls’ schooling low in Pakistan.

Three decades later, Pakistani women do have better educational outcomes: literacy rates of females have risen from 21% to 49%; and so have girls’ net primary enrollment rates from 39% to 51%. There is also an admirable improvement in narrowing the gap with boys’ enrolment over the last two decades. Primary enrollment rates have almost levelled in urban areas and even exceeded in favour of girls in parts of the Punjab. This has put a nail in the coffin on the debate about whether the demand for girl’s primary education is real. Where schools are prevalent, parents do prioritize girls’ schooling.

The real disappointment is the snail’s pace in overall progress in primary enrollment for both boys and girls. Pakistan falls far short below the levels expected by 2020. At the current rate of change based on PSLMS enrollment trends, Pakistan will reach universal primary education by 2070! This is poor progress in comparison with the current 90% enrollment in Bangladesh. This is especially disappointing after great priority given to education through passing of a constitutional amendment resulting in Article 25(A) legally mandating universal primary education, in addition to donor investments in advocacy programs like Alif Ailaan and Awaaz.

A major sticking point for girls is now the move from primary to secondary enrollment. Access to schools for primary level has improved especially with the contribution of low- cost primary private schooling. But access to secondary education for girls in Pakistan is certainly more limited than it is for boys. In addition, there are a myriad of issues of travel and security that require girls to have escorts to school, or anywhere outside the home. Directly affecting parents and families is the real fear of girls’ vulnerability to abuse in venturing anywhere too far from home. Insecurities range from verbal harassment, shaming through mobile and social media to even sexual assault and rape. These are now openly discussed by media as national issues and are recognized to inhibit the participation of girls and women in roles in public spaces.

Related is the female labor force participation rate, another glaring statistic that has moved very slowly for decades. Since the 1990’s the female labour force participation rate hovered for decades at 11%. This was despite intensive work to improve statistical measurement systems and despite the use of more inclusive definitions. Finally, in 2007, the female participation rate rose to 22%, but has plateaued at that level for the last decade.

Surprisingly, the rise in female work has occurred mostly in rural areas going up to 26 % in 2018, and is largely driven by a rise in participation of women in agriculture in the Punjab.. Urban rates have hardly changed in the equivalent time, hovering at 11%. Encouragingly, the rise in female employment rates has seen a much younger profile of women who are employed compared to earlier when it was older women who mainly work after having fulfilled their roles as mothers and wives. Younger women, especially in the ages 20-30, are driving the rise in employment among women. At the same time, female labour force participation even in this age group is barely 25%, though it is up significantly from 13% in the 1990’s. Agriculture still remains the main source of employment for females.

A major challenge is the pronounced u-shaped curve of women’s labour force participation with education. It reinforces the complex relationship between education and employability for women in Pakistan. While men have a flatter curve with educational attainment, the curve for women is very pronounced. Presumably men have to work regardless of what jobs are available, as is the patriarchal and stereotyped expectation; for women there is a huge struggle against gender hierarchies and stereotypes, especially to seek non-family related work. In addition, there is a strong employers’ bias in hiring of women and this challenge only combines further with the formidable challenge of leaving the home.

This results in women at the lower end of the income and no education spectrum having to accept any work out of poverty, and to support their households. At the other end of the spectrum, women who have a degree have higher participation rates at 44%. Of concern are the very low levels of employment among females with less than primary, and even secondary schooling. The key is that higher education does lead to higher employment chances but only a few are privileged to get there. Lower levels of attainment must be matched with employment opportunities for the whole cohort of women to get a bump up in employment rates.

A very important value change is the strongly expressed desire among young girls to work, contribute to household income, and to utilize their education for employment. The value of female education in the eyes of most, especially fathers, according to a 2018 Population Council study, is still limited to better marriage prospects and not employment. On the other hand, girls themselves and their mothers do make a link between education and employment, and value highly the prospects of being economically productive. The major obstacle seen by girls in the Punjab is family pressure (fathers and other household members) against their work compounded by security issues that prevent them from seeking work outside the home. Their choices are restricted to agricultural or home-based work reinforcing the status quo of their mothers’ lives.

Improved mobility for females is key for both education and employment. The monetary and social and personal costs involved with transport to travel are formidable and ought not to be minimized. Importantly they should be taken into consideration in planning interventions and creation of opportunities rather than be seen as a given. In the important words of a previous VC of Gujrat University, “simple structural changes such as arranging buses for women overcomes cultural barriers, unleashing an avalanche of families wanting their girls to attend.”

A strong proposition is that tipping point at which returns to schooling for girls edge towards equality with boys will only be reached when the female labor force participation rises beyond its current levels. A counter proposition is that new opportunities for girls and women can make secondary education more desirable. Probably, both are necessary changes to dismantle staid gender norms and values and household dynamics in Pakistan.

Let us look at the evidence about which of the two – education or employment- brings greater empowerment for women. Data from the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18 reinforces that women’s own earning in cash does lead to greater empowerment. Women who are employed for cash are 50% more likely to make important decisions regarding their household purchase, health care and visit to family members than those that are not employed or employed, but not for cash. Additionally, those that have more than secondary education are likely to have similar decision-making powers. But the brutal fact remains that in 2018 only about one third of women in Pakistan had the authority to make some basic of decisions on their own.

Change can begin with very basic structural improvements in enhanced mobility outside the home. What is intrinsically different about Nepal and Bangladesh apart from greater mobility of women, is a deliberate attempt to include female education and female employment including large scale micro-credit enterprises into mainstream development priorities. A gendered pattern of development that distributes its benefits more equitably to women and girls, and also includes them in a visible participation in new initiatives such as export related activities can be truly transformational for conventional and persisting gendered barriers.

Changes in employers’ attitudes to be more accommodating of women such as creches and segregated spaces can also allow women greater ability to become productive. But above all, societal perceptions and attitudes have to change. A society must make security for girls and women a priority so they can navigate public transport, and enter public spaces without harassment and fear. Above all, their work and contribution has to be counted and respected.

Zeba Sathar is the Pakistan Country Director at Population Council, Islamabad