Women and girls must be at the center of Pakistan’s COVID-19 recovery

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Woman Shopkeeper | Sourced from www.pakstockphoto.com | Photographer: Asad Zaidi
Roheela Bibi, a female entrepreneur in Sheikhupura, Punjab, Pakistan | Sourced from www.pakstockphoto.com | Photographer: Asad Zaidi

This blog is part of the 'Act Now Pakistan' series focusing on ideas, policies and actions for Pakistan to recover stronger and better as the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

In the last three years, Samina’s embroidery and embellishments business was a success story.

The Karachi-based venture helped pay for her kids’ school fees. Hailing from humble beginnings, Samina became the primary earner in her household. At its peak, her business boasted 9 women employees, each earning PKR 40,000 a month.

Then COVID-19 hit, wiping out demand for her products.

Samina is now finding it hard to make ends meet. She’s not alone in her struggle, as thousands of other Pakistani businesswomen face drastic income losses since the virus broke out. 

A recent analysis shows that Pakistan’s women-owned microenterprises, which are usually smaller than their men-owned counterparts, are 8 percent more likely to lose their entire revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19 could widen gender inequalities

The virus has exacerbated deep-seated gender inequalities in Pakistan – which already ranked near the bottom on gender equality – spiking concerns that some of the economic and social gains women have fought so hard to obtain will be lost.

With economic uncertainty, informal jobs, which account for most of women’s employment, have been the first to go.  Most women informal workers, especially those based at home, have lost their source of income. Over a quarter of Pakistani women have been fired or suspended from their jobs in various sectors. With children at home during lockdowns, women are also shouldering most of the care work, further reducing their economic opportunities.

Besides the economic toll, COVID-19 has also disrupted essential health services for women and children, as well as education.

Most reproductive health and family planning facilities are still not fully functional across Pakistan. Pre- and post-natal services have discontinued as community health workers are either grounded or reluctant to make field visits due to lack of personal protective equipment. Field reports indicate that pregnant women are distressed. Some women cannot obtain the contraceptives they rely on for their health and family planning.

As it fights the coronavirus, Pakistan needs to develop economic and social policies that address the specific needs of women.

Meanwhile, quarantine, isolation wards, and other health facilities are not well-equipped to serve vulnerable groups like women, transgender people, and the elderly. They lack toilet privacy as well as basic sanitation products for menstruating women.

When it comes to education, girls will likely end up worse off because of COVID-19. Global findings from Ebola and other disasters confirm that when they face financial distress, many low-income families refuse to send their girls back to schools as they need them to handle additional housework or generate extra income through informal work.

Making matters worse for women, gender-based violence (GBV) is on the rise – in numbers and intensity – as services and many helplines have stopped, while most shelters or Darul Amans don’t have COVID-19 protocols in place to take in new individuals.

GBV services were already inadequate before the COVID pandemic, as 28 percent of Pakistani women and girls above age 15 reported experiencing physical violence. For these women, and many others sheltering at home with their abusers, safety is increasingly precarious.

On the economic front, the country is developing a project to revive microenterprises, especially women-owned businesses.

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Women working in textile factory | Pakistan | Sourced from www.pakstockphoto.com | Photographer: Asad Zaidi
Sourced from www.pakstockphoto.com | Photographer: Asad Zaidi

A renewed focus on gender equality 

As it fights the coronavirus, Pakistan needs to develop economic and social policies that address the specific needs of women. 

On the economic front, the country is developing a project to revive microenterprises, especially women-owned businesses.  With support from the World Bank, this will also provide smartphones to employees, especially women, to access online training that can help them launch successful businesses.

Since women are more likely to work for pay if they enjoy a supportive working environment, the World Bank and the United Nations are helping provincial and federal governments adopt policies and develop programs that facilitate women’s employment , such as safe transport, childcare support, and anti-sexual harassment in the workplace.

To help parents and other community members understand the benefits of girls’ education and encourage girls’ return to schools, the World Bank will launch an awareness campaign that uses online platforms, radio, TV, and mobile messages coupled with interactive community sessions. 

To curb gender-based violence, all provincial governments should restore and strengthen services for women in a post-lockdown scenario. The Ministry of Human Rights, the UN Population Fund, and the nongovernmental organization Rozan have developed standards of care for shelters during COVID-19 that can be extended to facilities across the country. Technology solutions such as the ministry’s WhatsApp can also help survivors report instances of abuse and domestic violence.

In addition, the World Bank is supporting a national helpline to address cases of online gender-based harassment and abuse. Our projects also include public campaigns to flag services available to survivors and help train health providers.

It’s urgent for Pakistan to adopt large-scale, inclusive policies that address the deep-rooted social and economic gender inequalities that have become more pronounced during the COVID-19 crisis.  Failure to do so will delay the country’s recovery from the pandemic and hamper its hard-fought efforts to achieve prosperity for all its people.

Authors

Uzma Quresh

Social Development Specialist (Gender)

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