Pakistan: Pakistan Government Gives Women Job Jolt

OneWorld South Asia
The Pakistan government's move to abolish five percent reservation for women in government jobs has evoked sharp criticism from activists and the opposition, which, recently introduced a bill demanding an increase in job reservations for them.
The government abolished the reservations despite suggestions from the National Commission on the Status of Women (NSCW), a recommendatory body to the federal government, to reserve 33 percent of jobs in the public sector for women.
The lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, was informed last week that the government had dispensed with the five percent quota, introduced when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister.

The government justified the move by claiming the reservations amounted to gender discrimination and hence violated the Constitution.

The house was informed that recruitment for government departments would be made purely on merit.

Statistics indicate that women comprise only 5.4 percent of federal government employees, mostly in the social sectors, while their numbers are almost negligible in higher levels of employment. A NCSW report reveals that the main reason for the lower status of women is the lack of a conducive, safe work environment. About 50 percent of women in the public sector face harassment.

Observes Nuzhat Rafiq, who holds a managerial position in a private sector firm, "The absence of women in posts that carry power despite the previous government's attempts to have a five percent quota for women in public sector employment shows the scheme has not worked. It is necessary to recruit women in greater numbers now, especially at high-level posts."

Human rights activist Anwar Sultana feels women should be inducted directly into mid-level posts because they are unable to work their way up from entry level jobs, despite being competent and qualified, due to discrimination at the workplace.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also slams the new move as a blatant violation of women's fundamental rights. It rejects the government's claim that such reservation is unconstitutional, pointing out that reservations for women are provided for in the country's basic laws.

The commission says it is unfortunate that NCSW's recommendations aimed at curtailing "legal, political and economic discrimination" against women are being consistently ignored by the government.

Lawyer Naveed Saeed Khan, member of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, accuses the government of misinterpreting the Constitution when it says job reservations are unconstitutional. Khan points out that the Constitution allows for changes in the law aimed at the uplift of women, and reservations fall under this category.

The NCSW also wrote to the government expressing its unhappiness with the move. It had earlier suggested women should hold posts in all commissions, inspection and inquiry committees, departmental promotional committees and selection boards.

The NCSW head, retired chief justice Majida Rizvi, argues that though women account for 50 percent of the population, they do not get equal opportunities in the employment field, so there is an urgent need for a special quota.

Riza feels the few women holding policy making positions lack the vision to introduce a change in existing policies or work towards empowering women.

Parliamentarian Nahid Khan, political secretary to Benazir Bhutto, feels the plight of women in Pakistan is worsened by discriminatory laws like the Hudood Ordinance, according to which a woman needs to provide four male witnesses to prove rape, failing which she is charged with adultery.

Last month, member of Parliament Sherry Rehman, part of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, introduced a bill appealing against such discriminatory laws and calling for 50 percent reservations for women in government jobs.

The bill is likely to be taken up for discussion in the next few weeks, at which time the National Assembly is sure to witness heated arguments.

The bill has already attracted flak from a number of politicians.

Parliamentarian Dr Farid Ahmad Piracha of the six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal argues that if women want equality, they should not seek discriminatory laws for themselves. "The bill presented in the lower house of Parliament seeks to end discrimination against women on the one hand and asks for a reserved quota for them on the other hand," he says.

Advisor to the prime minister Neelofar Bakhtiar has also voiced her opposition to the bill, claiming that since women in the country are already empowered, they do not need such bills to protect their rights.

But several other women in Pakistan paint a different picture than that depicted by Bakhtiar.

Saba Khattak, chief executive of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, says a study conducted by her organization reveals that 50 percent of Pakistan's women need permission to step out of their homes and only a small percentage are allowed to go for work without chaperones.

Most working women have to hand over their earnings to their parents or husbands.

On a slightly positive note, she points out that men now encourage their wives to work provided they earn reasonable salaries.

Publicly though, there is still hardly any visible change. Around 50 percent of married women prefer home-based work due to fear of harassment at the workplace and other social pressures, points out Khattak, adding that 90 percent of women have no knowledge of labor laws or legal recourses to curb harassment and discrimination.

A survey by the Institute of Development Economics shows 77 percent of the total female labor force falls within the purview of the informal sector, while 53 percent are classified as home based workers.

In the rural sector, where 79 percent of the female population above the age of ten is actively involved in farming, only 37 percent are gainfully employed in their own family farms while the rest fall within the category of unpaid workers.