It’s not like women in Pakistan have it easy, no matter what their financial status is or where they live. They are living in a society that is oppressive at best, misogynistic and downright cruel at its worst. This is why the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Gender Gap Report ranked Pakistan alongside Chad and Yemen as the worst for gender equality.
It’s not about religion, although religion is used by many men as justification. Religion is not the root cause of the belief that women are inferior. Rather, the mindset usually comes from frustration and inadequate education, both of which make it far easier to oppress women than to support them.
One would think that with more and more people migrating from rural areas to cities for work, their circumstances would get better, but this is not so in most cases. Cities in Pakistan tend to be far higher in cost of living than the rural areas. Thus, when families move to more urban areas, they do get an incremental increase in income but find, much to their dismay, that their cost of living exceeds that increment, making their state even worse.
Sakina is a mother of four who used to earn her living by selling organic honey by the highway just before the toll leading into Sukkur City. She visited a medical camp where I was volunteering and gave me the opportunity to listen to her as she spoke to a counselor. She wanted to move to the city nearest by and start a new life there with her family. She eventually moved to Karachi but found that leaving behind her rural life was not as easy as she thought. For one, housing was very expensive, and although she and her husband both had jobs, they could barely make ends meet. In their rural setting, they did not have to pay for food as they could barter for it; now, they have to pay for everything.
Sakina’s story is repeated across many households in the low-income areas of major cities like Karachi and Lahore. The increase in the migration rate is evidenced by the fact that, in 1951, only 17% of Pakistan was urban while, in 1998, this figure had grown to more than 32.5%. Today, the cities are teaming with hundreds of thousands of homeless people who arrived seeking a better lifestyle but ended up without a roof over their heads.
What is surprising, however, is that whether from rural or urban areas, the decrease in income is directly proportional to the increase in working capacity of the females of the family. Thus, the majority of women from low-income households are contributing members of the workforce, yet they are still treated like second-class citizens. Having said all this, women from low-income backgrounds are adjusting—more quickly than one might expect—along with their more upscale neighbors in the city and using communication tools found in these urban centers to speak out against crime.
Recent cases of abuse in urban centers—whether in the form of sexual harassment or acid throwing—have found their way into new and mainstream media at an increasing rate. I witnessed this trend this year while running UNWOMEN’s Tashadud Namanzur Awareness Campaign against violence on women in Pakistan. During the course of this online activism initiative, our team was contacted at an increasing rate by low-income women of Karachi and Lahore, via SMS, phone calls, emails, and social media, to report on the kinds of issues they were facing in their day to day lives. This outreach proves that even though they are facing a hard time, they do have a voice and are willing to use it. They are also looking to educate their future generations to make sure they do not suffer the hardships they themselves have encountered. Surely that a good sign, but the question remains: with the lawlessness and rampant isolation of women in Pakistan, will it be enough to break the shackles of poverty?