Expert Commentary

Women, girls and Malala: Research on gender and education in Pakistan, and beyond

2014 selection of research that sheds light on many of the challenges women face in Pakistan and the developing world. Studies look at the role of gender, religion, violence and discrimination.

Malala Yousafzai, the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, has been advocating across the world for girls’ educational rights, even in the face of extremely difficult circumstances in her home country of Pakistan, where gunmen attempted to assassinate her in 2012.

Of course, women throughout the world face a range of challenges, and none more so than in the developing world. Levels of education, health care and political representation can be dauntingly low, and discrimination and sexual violence are all too frequent.

One of the most prominent cases of a country struggling with the competing dynamics of development, modernization, religion and tradition is indeed Pakistan, the sixth most populous country on earth. The World Economic Forum ranks the country as the least gender equitable in the Asia and Pacific region. The 2012 annual report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan details many challenges women there face, including being “attacked and killed on account of asserting their rights to education, work and generally for choosing to have a say in key decisions in their lives.”

In 2012, UNESCO stated that Pakistan showed the least progress in the region educating low-income girls: “The poorest girls in Pakistan are twice as likely to be out of school as the poorest girls in India, almost three times as likely as the poorest girls in Nepal and around six times as likely as the poorest girls in Bangladesh.” (For additional comparisons between countries and groups within the same country, see the World Inequality Database on Education.) Even when there is the possibility of enrolling in a school, actually doing so can be downright dangerous. In June 2013, militants blew up a bus carrying female university students in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, and the school has since been shuttered. And Malala — the Pakistani schoolgirl and education advocate who was shot by the Taliban for her views — addressed the U.N. in favor of free, mandatory education around the world, adding that she was focusing on women “because they are suffering the most.”

Pakistani women who want to contribute to the economy face other barriers as well. A 2012 World Bank report details the difficulties they face gaining access to capital due to social constraints — needing permission from a male to even qualify for a loan, for example. According to the study, 50% to 70% of microloans given to women in Pakistan may actually be used by their male relatives. For further information on these types of obstacles, see the paper “Gender-Specific Barriers to Female Entrepreneurs in Pakistan: A Study in Urban Areas of Pakistan.” And even something as basic as using public transportation presents a challenge, according to the International Labour Organization.

Pakistan mobile health clinic (Wikimedia)The lack of opportunity for Pakistani women is also a loss for their country. According to a 2012 UNESCO report, literate Pakistani women earned nearly twice as much as those who were illiterate.

A study in Comparative Education, “Can Education Be a Path to Gender Equality in the Labour Market? An Update on Pakistan,” finds that “the market rewards women’s education and skills at a higher rate than men’s.” As Esther Duflo, a development economist at MIT and the director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, has noted, there is a close relationship between women’s empowerment and a country’s economic development.

Pakistan’s struggling economy needs all the help it can get. The Asian Development Bank estimates that in 2014, Pakistan’s GDP growth rate will be 3.5%, half the 7% needed just to absorb new workforce entrants. The World Bank notes that the country’s recovery from the global financial crisis has been the slowest in South Asia. According to the Pew Research Center, 80% of Pakistanis say the economy is in poor shape, while a British Council report found that economic factors were the greatest reason for the pessimism of youth on the direction the country is headed.

There are some organizations working to improve gender equality and provide more opportunities for women. The Citizens Foundation, a non-profit organization, runs schools across the country, encouraging female enrollment with the goal of having its campuses gender balanced. The Kashf Foundation, founded in 1996, became the first microfinance institution in Pakistan to target women from low-income communities. The First Women Bank was founded in 1989 to support businesswomen. Pakistan’s Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority (SMEDA) also provides support for female entrepreneurs.

Below is a selection of academic research that sheds light on many of the challenges facing women in Pakistan.


“Education System Reform in Pakistan: Why, When, and How?”
Aziz, Mehnaz, et al. Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, Institute for the Study of Labor, January 2014 IZA Policy Paper No. 76.

Excerpt: “While the state of the educational system in Pakistan is dire, and the gap between education providers and the aspirations of the people huge , we believe that a window of opportunity is now open for initiating system-level reform. It is urgent to seize this opportunity, because population dynamics will make education a graver problem in the next decade if immediate steps are not taken. It is also important to recognize that reform must tackle all sectors of the education system — primary/secondary, higher education and vocational education — as Pakistan does not have the luxury to delay reform in one sector until the other sectors improve. Of course, reforming the system poses a great challenge, but strong examples of success within Pakistan remind us that it can be done. This may be the time for public, private, and philanthropic institutions and change — makers to pool their resources and initiate lasting system — wide change, which some of them have achieved, at least partially, in their respective domains.”


“Gender Roles and Their Influence on Life Prospects for Women in Urban Karachi, Pakistan: A Qualitative Study”
Ali, Tazan S.; Krantz, Gunilla; Morgen, Ingrid et al. Global Health Action, 2011, 4:7448. doi: 10.3402/gha.v4i0.7448.

Summary: “Pakistan is a patriarchal society where men are the primary authority figures and women are subordinate. This has serious implications on women’s and men’s life prospects. The aim [of this study] was to explore current gender roles in urban Pakistan, how these are reproduced and maintained and influence men’s and women’s life circumstances. Five focus group discussions were conducted, including 28 women representing employed, unemployed, educated and uneducated women from different socio-economic strata. Manifest and latent content analyses were applied. Two major themes emerged during analysis: ‘Reiteration of gender roles’ and ‘Agents of change.’ The first theme included perceptions of traditional gender roles and how these preserve women’s subordination. The power gradient, with men holding a superior position in relation to women, distinctive features in the culture and the role of the extended family were considered to interact to suppress women. The second theme included agents of change, where the role of education was prominent as well as the role of mass media. It was further emphasised that the younger generation was more positive to modernisation of gender roles than the elder generation. This study reveals serious gender inequalities and human rights violations against women in the Pakistani society…. However, attainment of higher levels of education especially not only for women but also for men was viewed as an agent towards change. Furthermore, mass media was perceived as having a positive role to play in supporting women’s empowerment.”


“Negotiating Gender Relations: Muslim Women and Formal Employment in Pakistan’s Rural Development Sector”
Grünenfelder, Julia. Gender, Work and Organization, 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0432.2012.00609.x.

Abstract: “Drawing on evidence from qualitative field research, this article explores how Pakistani female development practitioners experience their work situations as they are shaped both by local sociocultural norms and globalized development agendas. In this context, policies at global and national levels demand that more female development practitioners work in remote rural places in Pakistan, thus creating new employment opportunities for some Pakistani women. This article argues that, in this work environment, these women are exposed to different expectations about their gender behaviour and that they therefore develop physical strategies on the one hand and discursive strategies on the other in order to negotiate gender relations in a way that allows them to engage in formal employment. This article adds to under-researched debates on gender and work in Muslim countries as well as to debates in critical development and gender studies.”


“Religious Values and Beliefs and Education for Women in Pakistan”
Bradley, Tamsin; Saigol, Rubina. Development in Practice, 2012, 22 (5-6), 675-688.

Abstract: “This paper explores the hypothesis that Islamic religious values and beliefs are antithetical to women’s education in two cities in Pakistan: Lahore, generally believed to be a socially liberal city, and Peshawar, often regarded as the bastion of conservative values and norms. Leaders and members of selected religious organisations, and some members of women’s rights and development organisations, were interviewed to ascertain their views. While there is universal support for girls’ education, views on the purpose, content and mode of delivery differ between men and women and also depend on respondents’ position on the liberal/conservative spectrum. Some of the policy implications of the findings are discussed.”


“Developing Gender Equality: An Analytical Study of Socio-Political and Economic Constraints in Women’s Empowerment in Pakhtun Society of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan”
Chaudhry, Hafeez-ur-Rehman; Naz, Arab. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 2011, 2(1), 259-266.

Abstract: “Socio-political and economic constraints to women’s empowerment exist in most of the world societies. However, the nature and shape of these constraints differ from culture to culture and society to society. This study was undertaken on socio-political and economic constraints in women’s empowerment in Pakhtun Society of Chakdara District Dir (L) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Women in the region have been discriminated in many ways, i.e., at domestic, economic, religious and political levels. To investigate socio-political and economic constraints, the researcher ethnographically selected village Chakdara and a survey of 4,331 households was conducted. Data was collected from 176 educated respondents by systematic random sampling technique using semi-structured interview schedule. The collected information has been classified, tabulated and presented in bar charts, which has further been discussed qualitatively in detail. The study highlights that there exist various social, political and economic barriers to women’s empowerment. However, changes are observable in gender roles towards women’s participation in socio-cultural activities and the need is to provide educational opportunities, gender representation in government policies and programs and socialization.”


“International Transfer of Policies and Practices of Gender Equality in Employment to and Among Muslim Majority Countries”
Özbilgin, Mustafa F.; Syed, Jawad; Ali, Faiza; Torunoglu, Dilek. Gender, Work and Organization, 2012, 19(4), 345-369.

Summary: “This article investigates the premise that it is possible to transpose organizational approaches to equal employment opportunity (EEO) from western countries to Muslim majority countries (MMCs). Drawing on policy interviews and documentary evidence from public sector organizations and international development agencies engaged in the promotion of gender equality in Turkey and Pakistan, we question the effectiveness of diffusion of gender equality policies and practices to and among these two MMCs. Our investigation reveals the primacy of context over essence in developing effective ways to construct EEO policies and practices which can be adopted in MMCs.”


“Discourses of Gender Identities and Gender Roles in Pakistan: Women and Non-domestic Work in Political Representations”
Grünenfelder, Julia. Women’s Studies International Forum, 2013, 40, 68-77. doi: 10.1016/j.wsif.2013.05.007.

Summary: “This paper aims to explore some of the manifold and changing links that official Pakistani state discourses forged between women and work from the 1940s to the late 2000s. The focus of the analysis is on discursive spaces that have been created for women engaged in non-domestic work. Starting from an interpretation of the existing academic literature, this paper argues that Pakistani women’s non-domestic work has been conceptualised in three major ways: as a contribution to national development, as a danger to the nation, and as nonexistent. The paper concludes that although some conceptualisations of work have been more powerful than others and, at specific historical junctures, have become part of concrete state policies, alternative conceptualisations have always existed alongside them. Disclosing the state’s implication in the discursive construction of working women’s identities might contribute to the destabilisation of hegemonic concepts of gendered divisions of labour in Pakistan.”


“Violence Permeating Daily Life: A Qualitative Study Investigating Perspectives on Violence Among Women in Karachi, Pakistan”
Ali, Tazeen S.; Krantz, Gunilla; Mogren, Ingrid. International Journal of Women’s Health, 2012, 4, 577-585. doi: 10.2147/IJWH.S33325.

Abstract: “This study explored how married women perceive situations which create family conflicts and lead to different forms of violence in urban Pakistan. In addition, it examines perceptions of consequences of violence, their adverse health effects and how women resist violence within marital life. Five focus group discussions were conducted with 28 women in Karachi. Purposive sampling, aiming for variety in age, employment status, education and socioeconomic status, was employed. The focus group discussions were conducted in Urdu and translated into English. Manifest and latent content analysis were applied…. The current study highlights how female victims of abuse are trapped in a society where violence from a partner and family members is viewed as acceptable, where divorce is unavailable to the majority and where societal support of women is limited. There is an urgent need to raise the subject of violence against women and tackle this human rights problem at all levels of society by targeting the individual, family, community and societal levels concurrently.”


“Struggle and Hope: Challenging Gender Violence in Pakistan”
Critelli, Filomena M; Willet, Jennifer. Critical Sociology, 2012, 39(2), 201-221. doi: 10.1177/0896920512438780.

Abstract: “Despite the overwhelming media attention to the rise of fundamentalism, Pakistan’s vocal women’s movement has remained unrevealed and unexamined. Gender violence is integral to the agenda of the women’s movement, because of the profound violation of women’s human rights to life and security. This article draws on formal in-depth interviews and participant observation with women’s activists of two prominent women’s nongovernmental organizations in Lahore, Pakistan. Using a transnational feminist framework and feminist social movement theory, it examines the organizations’ strategies for change and how the historical, political and social environments of their fields for protest shape these strategies. The struggles and achievements of women’s activism against gender violence are analyzed with implications beyond the experiences of these organizations.”


“Suffrage, Democracy and Gender Equality in Education”
Cooray, Arusha. Oxford Development Studies, 2012, 40(1), 21-47.

Abstract: “Examining the influence of women’s suffrage and democracy on gender equality in education in a sample of 80 countries, covering Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and Eastern Europe, this study shows that countries with a longer duration of suffrage tend on average to perform better in terms of gender equality in education. The empirical association between democracy and gender equality in education disappears when religion is controlled for. In Asia and Africa, other factors, including income, employment in agriculture and colonialism, also help explain the under-representation of girls in education.”


“A Paradigm Shift in Women’s Movement and Gender Reforms in Pakistan (A Historical Overview)”
Naz, Arab; et al. Global Journal of Human Social Science, Sociology and Culture, 2013, 13(1), 21-26.

Abstract: “A historical analysis of the women’s movement and gender reforms in Pakistan, the study provides an evolutionary perspective on social change and development. Data was collected from PhD dissertations conducted in the years 2008-12 in the Department of Anthropology, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. The paper provides detail about gender and women’s reforms and concludes that they are part of a long historic process and that progress has been slowed by multiple factors, including conservative forces. However, the study finds that there is always the possibility of change and development, as is clear from the country’s ongoing gender reforms.”


“Gender Discrimination and Social Identity: Experimental Evidence from Urban Pakistan”
Delavande, Adeline; Zafar, Basit. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Staff Report No. 593, January 2013.

Abstract: “Gender discrimination in South Asia is a well-documented fact. However, gender is only one of an individual’s many identities. This paper investigates how gender discrimination depends on the social identities of interacting parties. We use an experimental approach to identify gender discrimination by randomly matching 2,836 male and female students pursuing bachelor’s-equivalent degrees in three different types of institutions — Madrassas (religious seminaries), Islamic universities and liberal universities — that represent distinct identities within the Pakistani society. Our main finding is that gender discrimination is not uniform in intensity and nature across the educated Pakistani society and varies as a function of the social identity of both individuals who interact. While we find no evidence of higher-socioeconomic-status men discriminating against women, men of lower socioeconomic status and higher religiosity tend to discriminate against women — but only women of lower socioeconomic status who are closest to them in social distance. Moreover, this discrimination is largely taste-based. Our findings suggest that social policies aimed at empowering women need to account for the intersectionality of gender with social identity.”


Keywords: women and work, gender equity, South Asia

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