Men as Allies, Not Enemies!

Rakhshanda Abbas

I would like to start by sharing statistics, lest I am misunderstood as a radical feminist.

According to a survey conducted by the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan, female literacy rate in Gilgit-Baltistan is 30%, compared to male literacy rate of 67%. This gender gap in education has far-reaching implications for women’s economic empowerment, as education is a key driver of economic mobility and to cash in on other opportunities as well.

Women who lack access to education and training are less likely to be able to enter high-paying jobs or start their own businesses, limiting their economic potential. Being a woman and getting to exercise your rights in various areas of life, such as education, career, economy, politics, health, and marriage, seems as foreign to women as the term ‘consent’ seems to men out there.

It goes without saying that women, before being labelled in terms of their roles as mother, sisters, daughters, are complete human beings in themselves. Beyond these expectations and relations, each woman possesses her own unique perspective and way of perceiving the world. However, in Gilgit-Baltistan, women face skyscraper glass ceilings when it comes to their economic empowerment, with hidebound gender roles and inexorable expectations placing the burden of household and caregiving responsibilities primarily on them.

According to Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey, women in Gilgit-Baltistan spend an average of 4.4 hours per day on unpaid domestic work, compared to men’s 1.9 hours. Despite this, women frequently encounter tactless remarks, the most prevalent being, “What do you do all day?”

Comments like these perpetuate a culture of oppression, which in turn strengthens the unequal weight of caregiving responsibilities that society places on women. This weight restricts their capacity to engage fully in the workforce and make autonomous economic choices. Instead, the strings of their economic lives are often controlled by the male heads of their families, be it their husband, brother, or father, or in some cases even distant relatives.

This economic apartheid works in subtle layers and in order for men to understand it, they have to try to get in the women’s shoes! Some women who get to work outside, either by “stroke of luck or forced choice”, believe, or are made to believe, themselves as financially stable due to their employment status. But true economic empowerment goes beyond just earning a sum as salary. Itinvolves having the right to invest in oneself, one’s family, and household with full entitlement. However, in my region and others, I have witnessed women working, being used a smoke screen by men who take ‘pride’ in feigning their unequivocal support for women economic rights. In reality, these men or other male figures in the family, still hold the power to make economic decisions singularly. This double oppression leaves them with the burden of balancing work and household responsibilities falling disproportionately on women, leaving them with little time or energy to focus on their own economic goals.

This manifests the multiple layers of gender discrimination in Pakistan, with each passing day revealing a new dimension of it. This can leave them feeling frustrated, disempowered, and trapped in a cycle of poverty and inequality. It must be difficult for men to imagine how challenging it must be for women working to provide for their families while also being denied the right to make decisions about their own economic futures. They may have dreams of starting their own businesses or investing in their education and training to advance their careers, but their aspirations are likely to be stifled by the men-friendly cultural norms or the heightened expectations of their male partners or family members for women to exemplify themselves as sacrificial goats.

In many cases, women’s opinions and desires are overshadowed by the needs of their families, underscoring the unequal power dynamics that exist within households.

To address the culture of this economic apartheid between the genders, it is essential to adopt a comprehensive approach that addresses the systemic barriers to women’s economic empowerment in Gilgit-Baltistan. This can include promoting girls’ education and training opportunities, challenging traditional gender roles and expectations, and creating policies and programs that support women’s entrepreneurship and business development.

One example of a program that has been successful in promoting women’s economic empowerment in Gilgit-Baltistan is the Women Economic Empowerment Centers (WEECs) initiative. This program, launched by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, provides training and support to women entrepreneurs, helping them to start and grow their businesses. Since its inception in 2012, the program has supported over 2,000 women entrepreneurs, resulting in a significant increase in household incomes and economic empowerment for women in the region.

In addition to initiatives like the WEECs, it is equally important to involve men as allies in the fight for women’s economic empowerment. Men, if sensitized to the gender issues, can play an unwavering role in challenging the existing patriarchy, supporting women’s education and training, and sharing the burden of household and caregiving responsibilities. We need to address the systemic barriers that prevent women from exercising their economic decision-making power. This means challenging hidebound cultural norms and misogynistic stereotypes that perpetuate gender discrimination and creating policies and programs that support women’s economic empowerment.

“When men become allies in the fight for gender equality, it benefits not only women but also their families and communities as a whole”.

The impact of the ongoing gender discrimination extends beyond individual women to their families and communities. When women are denied the opportunity to contribute fully to the economy, their potential for economic growth and development gets limited. On the other hand, when women are empowered to make their own economic decisions, they are more likely to invest in education, health, and other areas that benefit themselves and their families

It Is high time for men in our society to help the women in their lives who are adding to the family income, emotionally, by showing respect for whatever economic decisions they take and helping in household chores. This support should not be ‘offered’ in courtesy with the sole intention of favoring them in ‘their share of the work,’ but instead, as a way of helping an independent, contributing member of the family who also happens to be a woman. Both partners should share the responsibilities of managing the household, and the contribution of each member should be equally appreciated and accorded respected.

The contributor is an Assistant Lecturer at KIU, Gilgit.

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