Pakistan’s investment in girls and women is paying dividends, but there is more to do.
By Dr. Sania Nishtar, Pakistani Senator, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister
Following the first-ever G20 ministerial conference dedicated to women’s empowerment last month, I was reminded of my first job as a junior medical officer in a hospital in Peshawar. I would always start my morning rounds by asking routine questions about people’s medical history and soon realized that whenever I asked women from former tribal areas of Pakistan how many children they had, I needed to ask twice. The first time, they would only tell me the number of boys. Girls were only included when I explicitly asked for the total number of children.
Thirty years later, some of these societal prejudices are still present. Despite one of the most progressive legislative frameworks in the region protecting women’s rights, and progress in political representation, increased enrolment of women in higher education and the lack of legal barriers of the kind imposed in some Middle Eastern countries, there are still major challenges to address in Pakistan and other countries around the world.
This is precisely what Gender Equality Ministers from the G20 gathered to address. On a global scale, leaders discussed how to economically empower women by fostering better quality jobs in sectors like STEM, creating policies to strengthen women’s skills across valuable areas like financial and digital literacy, as well as addressing the protection of women’s rights.
At home, we are focused on building a welfare state, which puts women and girls at the centre of policy making. Called Ehsaas, Pakistan government’s flagship poverty alleviation programme has introduced concrete measures to ensure that women and girls are given the same support as their male counterparts at every level. More than three-quarters of the entire programme’s benefits are dedicated to women and girls.
To address the disparity in access to health and nutrition services, the Ehsaas conditional cash transfer programme (Ehsaas Nashonuma), provides stipends deliberately weighted in favour of girls. Together with specialised nutritional food, cash transfers aim to prevent stunting in the most disadvantaged districts of the country.
After Prime Minister Imran Khan opened the first centre in Khyber district— a remote, former tribal district in the north west of the country — there was a sudden surge of women coming to the centre proudly holding girls. For the first time, I saw a sense of pride associated with having a girl child. This was the most transformative societal change I have seen in my lifetime.
When it comes to financial access to education, a previous government programme provided very small stipends for households planning to send both girls and boys to primary school in selected districts. Now, to incentivize girls’ education, households are given a higher amount for choosing to educate girls and are offered support through higher secondary school levels at a national level.
Completing higher education, however, still remains a major barrier for women to ultimately graduate out of poverty. What’s more, families often encourage and pay for sons instead of daughters to receive undergraduate degrees. That’s why Ehsaas also provides need- and merit-based scholarships to hundreds of thousands of students in Pakistan, with half of all scholarships strictly reserved for girls.
In another major effort to level the playing field, Ehsaas has put financial tools in the hands of women. All eight million beneficiaries of the country’s cash transfer scheme (Ehsaas Kafaalat) and the new Ehsaas One Women One Account financial inclusion initiative are women. And more than 50 per cent of those receiving asset transfers and loans through Ehsaas are women as well.
It is now well established that in order for countries everywhere to thrive and build back better from global shocks like COVID-19, women and girls must be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. The first-ever G20 conference on women’s empowerment is a timely and necessary step to ensure women thrive, as progress is simply not possible without women.
The only way to achieve this tall order within our country was to ensure women and girls directly benefit from all initiatives under the social welfare umbrella—Pakistan’s largest and most ambitious poverty alleviation and social protection programme in history. While the true impact of these changes will take years to unfold, we know that by placing women and girls at the centre of everything we do now, the Ehsaas initiative is creating a healthier and stronger Pakistan, more ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century. While girl power is rising, there is a lot more to do to ensure that girls and women have equal opportunities.
Dr. Sania Nishtar is a Pakistani Senator and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, Poverty Alleviation & Social Safety.