Pakistan is consistently ranked as one of the lowest on the Global Gender Gap Index. The index, produced by World Economic Forum, measures 144 countries’ progress towards gender parity on four criteria: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

Though women constitute 49% of Pakistan’s population, they form only 24% of the labor force. The labor force participation rate (LFPR) for men is more than three times higher than women. The gender gap in female participation is one of the world’s highest. The issue is not education only. Research already indicates that labor force participation rate for educated women is not high either. In wage employment, women are 15% of the employed workforce. Most women work as contributing family workers helping other family members in family businesses.

The hourly gender wage gap in Pakistan is estimated at 26%, indicating that women’s wages are only 74% of men’s wages. Only 37% of women workers are paid wages regularly. Others are engaged as part time or piece-rate workers. Of the regularly paid women workers, 55% received less than the applicable minimum wage (Rs.12,000) in 2014-15. Less than 2% of the female labor force is registered with the provincial social security institutions thus leaving them without any social protection in the event of workplace accident or disease or maternity.

An IMF study estimates that Pakistani GDP can increase by nearly one-third if women labor force participation rates match male participation rates. Similarly, an ILO study indicated that if Pakistan merely reduces the gender gap in female participation by 25%, its GDP can increase by 9%, an increase of $139 billion. It is much more than the US aid in the last 16 years ($33 billion) and CPEC loans and investment (of more than $60 billion).

Researchers have already identified different factors affecting female labor force participation. These include educational attainment, fertility, family size and income, being the head of the household, religion along with local customs and social norms, and marital status. Availability of work-family reconciliation measures, including of part-time work for women (not regulated in Pakistan), fully protected paid pregnancy-related leaves, availability of childcare subsidies (not provided as a statutory benefit though Punjab Day Care Centre model can be emulated in other provinces), and statutory right for the nursing mothers to have breastfeeding breaks (not currently mandated in law) have a significantly positive impact on female labor force participation. The major challenges to female labor force participation include lack of affordable and accessible transport and childcare, workplace harassment and discrimination, and work and family balance.

A much-neglected factor and consequently a challenge is lack of ‘enabling labor legislation’. Legislation prohibiting workplace discrimination, including harassment and guaranteeing pay equality, even when implemented in a lackluster way, has a symbolic significance, leads towards an attitudinal change by shaping public attitudes, allows inspection by labor departments and court action for enforcement.

Pakistan direly needs federal anti-discrimination framework legislation in line with the core ILO Conventions and CEDAW. Such legislation should prohibit discrimination on the ground of sex, age, religion, disability, trade union membership, etc., and ensure equal pay. The anti-discrimination legislation should also consider issues of violence and harassment at workplace, and treat these as occupational health and safety issues.

Legislative efforts need to be complemented with sufficient budgetary allocations for departments/institutions tasked with the enforcement of legislation, vibrant labor inspection system, dissuasive penalties, increased awareness of workers about their rights, access to enforcement mechanisms and protections of workers against victimization. Employers can also do a lot to promote female workforce participation by allowing flexible work and providing child care services at their premises or supporting such initiatives. is one of the online platforms where you can find out more about workplace rights for women as well as men in Pakistan. Institute for Labor Rights (The Whistlers), on the other hand, allows submission of anonymous workplace rights violation data which can help in scoping of workplace issues including discrimination and victimization at workplace.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.

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Iftikhar Ahmad holds a Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations (comparative labor law) from the ILR School, Cornell University, USA where he was a recipient of prestigious US Fulbright Scholarship. He is currently working as a Global Labor Law Specialist with WageIndicator Foundation. Iftikhar writes regularly on labor market issues and can be reached at [email protected]