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CPEC: a case for gender mainstreaming

By Benazir Jatoi

Published: March 16, 2018

The writer is a barrister and human rights campaigner. She tweets @BenazirJatoi

The undisputable facts about CPEC, Pakistan’s $60 billion bi-lateral agreement is that it is growing at a rapid speed and will most certainly change the physical landscape and socio-economic environment of the entire country. CPEC seeks unprecedented focus firstly, on manufacturing — showing present constraints and future requirements; and secondly, demands for new jobs.

With regard to the labour market demands, it looks as if it is not Pakistanis that fulfilled the immediate job market demand in the highly specialised energy and infrastructure sector. Yet, there is no doubt that the long-term sustainability and success of CPEC relies on local knowledge and labour force. In terms of the industrial zones, the first nine having been identified, there is room to plan and negotiate for local, both women and men, human resource as workers, entrepreneurs and specialists.

With long-term sustainability and the diversely identified industrial zones, Pakistan is presented with a perfect opportunity to address many serious pending issues that is holding us back economically and socially. This brings into light the issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment, requiring an honest recognition of what is lacking and holding back women being integrated into the formal labour market. A meaningful analysis will question issues around women’s own agency (or lack of), patriarchal and societal structures and (lack of) education as underlying barriers to progress. Yet examples from around the world leave us with unequivocal evidence — that formally recognising women as economic contributors and integrating women in conventional and non-conventional vocation have benefited not just women and their immediate families but significantly added to the collective economic growth and development of the whole country.

China is perhaps the best example to start with as a nation that has recognised that women citizens are equal agents of economic change. It has shown that gender mainstreaming and women’s economic empowerment have remained on the agenda, even when faced with political or other instability. At one moment in time, pre-industrialised China stood where Pakistan stands today. Despite many differences, the similarities were glaringly obvious. In addition to the oppression of women under customary rules and deeply-rooted traditional views, China had a large population to deal with. Similar to Pakistan, China also lacked educational and technical institutions and was short of the machinery and capital investment needed for sustained growth. However, the ruling elite did have an astute understanding of the most imperative ingredient for economic change — its people. At the core of the Chinese revolutionary doctrine it was clear that economic growth was not possible with just men. This called for a thorough restructuring of Chinese society as essential for economic growth. This included the elimination of customs and institutions that oppress women — religious superstition, landholding systems, educational admission standards, job discrimination and family patterns. In fact, it was well understood that reform of the traditional family system, marriage and divorce, and addressing issues of child and forced marriages, women’s confinement to the home and housework and suicide among women was imperative for real change to take place.

Recognising that real development lay in the maximum employment of its citizens, China’s single most important policy goal has been its full employment policy. With regard to women, China has taken into account two things, firstly, that women need to join the workforce for economic growth and secondly, the policy has to address the dual burden — of home and work — faced by women, in order for real meaningful success of its policy. This has meant using manpower policy and social policy, in mutually reinforcing and complimentary ways. In basic healthcare units, the Communist party in 1949 made impressive progress, starting with women workers who faced frequent pregnancies and high mortality rates in both mother and child. Lighter work during pregnancy and flexible working hours for mothers with young children, maternity leave and creating paramedical and midwife staff to attempt rural women access to healthcare were also adopted as the state policy. Similarly, the earliest policy area, where the Communist party has consistently focused has been childcare services for working mothers. Women wings of local trade unions were responsible for childcare services. The 1970s saw a particular emphasis through policy stances on bringing women out of traditional women’s work. Women activists or women community leaders, often semi or illiterate women in local areas, identified and recruited by the Communist party, were relied on to take the messages of policy and campaign stances to the people. In fact it was believed that government policy would never be enforced in China without the activist.

There is no doubt that the restructuring of Chinese society were never viewed in isolation from the existing political institutions and an intricate part of larger revolutionary goals. Critics rightly argue that these pro-women policies were put in place to aid production not necessarily to aid women. And present day China still sees discrimination and barriers against women where women are not viewed as the principal carriers of economic development. But it would be simplistic not to see the distance that women have come in China.

Keeping in view China’s example, the ADB considers Pakistan to be having an opportune time with CPEC, which has the potential to help Pakistan move up from a lower income to a middle-income country. To realise this potential, among other factors, good initial planning must consider women and men benefit differently from the economic dividends. Therefore, it is important that Pakistan’s policymakers acknowledge the difference to enable for better and more comprehensive plans.

Yet, gender mainstreaming is also Pakistan’s biggest challenge, because misconstrued cultural practices and beliefs restrict women into traditional roles and add to the already dismal figures around girls’ education, the lack of women’s decision-making role in family planning, and women’s economic and social dependency. Keeping in mind China’s example, a good place to start would be for the planning commission and other relevant stakeholders to recognise the underlying causes and the need to address them.

The Principal Economist at the ADB, Mr Guntur Sugiyarto, believes that Pakistan needs to create evidence-based decision-making process to show not just the impact of mainstreaming women into economic development but also the impact on Pakistan’s economy and social fabric of not including women in the development process. ILO requirements, which now also have EU’s GSP backing, are also supportive of integrating women and provide frameworks that are good aids to start with.

Planning that takes everyone along and keeps in the forefront all Pakistanis is necessary when identifying opportunities that may be reaped from CPEC. Further, opening up about the details of CPEC will not only dispel insecurities and misunderstandings around it, but also allow everyone to be part of the planning process. The success of CPEC lies in Pakistanis being in the forefront to sustain it and ensure it succeeds. It would be flawed and simplistic to think that its sustainability and CPEC’s long-term success can be realised without involving Pakistan’s citizens, including women, directly. Taking women along, however, is not a revolutionary ask. International best practices and unambiguous evidence all point to the fact that gender mainstreaming is sensible, essential for real economic growth, sustainable development and of collective benefit to all.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2018


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