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Monday, 18 March 2019

The Plight of Domestic Workers in Pakistan

By Kabeer Dawani

Photo credit: Facebook.com/Maid2Shop

One aspect of the Aurat March 2019 which, amidst the backlash from the patriarchy, did not receive much attention was female domestic workers coming out in significant numbers to ask (among other things) for their right to fair compensation. As seen above, they asked, “Do you pay your domestic workers the minimum wage?”

This is not an unreasonable question, but the fact of the matter is that, as a society, we don’t treat our labour well. This is true for labour across sectors (agricultural, industrial, and the service sector). Labour laws are routinely circumvented, and state enforcement of those laws is lax at best. (For example, see this recent report by Human Rights Watch documenting egregious violations in the garments industry.)

Domestic work, however, is perhaps one of the most exploitative forms of labour. Globally, the ILO estimated that domestic work is the number one form of forced labour in 2017. There is little research on Pakistan specifically. In one of the only studies on domestic work in Pakistan, Haris Gazdar and Ayesha Khan find that some domestic labour arrangements “come very close to outright slavery” due to the bondage that is created by employees borrowing in advance of their salaries.

This is just one form of exploitation however. As the Tayabba torture case demonstrated, other issues abound: child labour is rampant; there is widespread verbal, sexual and physical abuse, including inhumane work hours; and wages for domestic workers are far below minimum wage. In short, they do not have human dignity.

In particular on the minimum wage, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) can be used to provide an illustration of what is a startling picture. In 2017-18, more than half of those employed earned a monthly wage that was below the minimum wage of Rs.15,000. Specifically for the category ‘household employees’, the average wage is Rs.9,272. Most remarkable perhaps is the gender wage gap: female domestic workers earn Rs.6,098, almost two-thirds below the legal minimum wage and more than half of what men earn. It is thus clearly also a gendered issue.

Further, on such low income, it is no surprise that these workers have to take on insurmountable amounts of debt, are not able to send their children to school, and suffer from poor nutrition and health outcomes.

Are Domestic Workers Entitled to a Minimum Wage?

When you ask someone if they pay their domestic workers minimum wage, their response is usually a self-serving justification that domestic workers don’t fall under minimum wage laws. This is, unfortunately, largely true (but no less morally reprehensible).

Until a few months ago, no legislation existed across Pakistan for the protection of domestic workers. Although the Senate passed a bill a few years ago, this has not yet been enacted by the National Assembly. It was only at the end of January 2019 that legislation formalizing domestic workers was passed in Punjab. This Act criminalizes work below the age of 15, stipulates that domestic workers must be paid minimum wage as set by the Minimum Wage Board, and includes several benefits, such as sick and maternity leave and pensions. The legislation is progressive and unprecedented in Pakistan. Indeed, no other province has formalized domestic work yet.

While legislation will not change things overnight, and there are serious issues of implementation, it sets an important direction for a more equitable Pakistan. In a setting where market power determines wages – and employers have all the power – legislating for a minimum wage (and ideally a living wage) for domestic workers also creates the baseline for changing social norms. One hopes the other provinces can follow Punjab’s example sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, taking care of those who literally take care of you, your children, and your home should be the humane thing to do, even if it isn’t the legal thing to do. I would like to end by quoting from a superb recent essay in the New York Times by Princeton Sociologist, Mathew Desmond, in which he powerfully illustrates the human impact of higher minimum wages:

“A $15 minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect.”

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Challenges of Empowerment for Women in Politics: Resources, Voice and Agency


By Zonia Yousuf Baltistani
Source: publicdomainfiles.com


In today’s development context the notion of women’s empowerment has replaced a more confrontational and political discourse of women’s rights. With major development frameworks, like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the demand for gender equality through women’s empowerment and inclusiveness has gained currency; the idea is to leave no one behind.

I believe this approach has transformed empowerment into a creative force; a resourceful power which is used to achieve and to accomplish. Scholars like Naila Kabeer, view empowerment in terms of the means that allow women to make strategic life choices: access to resources, enhanced voice and increased agency. In light of this understanding, how much (or little) has changed for women in politics? How empowered are women in politics in Pakistan?

It is safe to say that changes in the political arena have led to an increased number of resources that woman politicians have at their disposal. The Parliament itself, through an Act, created the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS), which provides research and capacity building services to all parliamentarians. Various workshops and trainings have been conducted by PIPS specifically for female parliamentarians to realize their leadership potentials and enhance their jurisdictive abilities.

The institute not only responds to research requests from parliamentarians but also aids them in the process of making informed legislative decisions by conducting comparative studies, offering bill drafting services, assisting in developing parliamentary committee reports, talking points, background papers and policy briefs. The institute conducts a Parliamentarians Orientation Program for newly elected members to familiarize them with the procedures of the parliament along with more specialized trainings such as annual pre and post budget seminars which aim to better equip the parliamentarians for deliberations on the budget. Female parliamentarians are equal participants in all activities. Further, the political parties in Pakistan are largely structured to have women wings as an inclusionary measure.

Policy changes leading to reserved seats for women, 10 per cent requirement of women’s voter turnout, five per cent reserved general seats for women, creation of gender-centric supporting bodies like the national and provincial Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses and the national and provincial Commissions on the Status of Women, have increased the participation of female politicians leading to more inclusion.

However, our research with 200 female parliamentarians (2013-2018) from the National Assembly, Senate and the Provincial Assemblies revealed that female parliamentarians continue to operate in hostile environments. There is still a considerable amount of silencing and exclusion that these women face within their parties as well as on the floor of the parliament. The following table describes findings from the survey indicating that women in politics are subject to various forms of sex- based discrimination and harassment:


Findings from interviews with key informants uncovered that women parliamentarians are on occasion either physically excluded from meetings and discussions or encounter a suppression of their voices when present. Their voice is minimally included in party polices, even when decisions regarding their own political careers are being made by the party.

Our study divulges that despite the available resources, female politicians continue to lack space and agency (excluding a few exceptions to the norm). The agency of women in Caucuses to legislate on women’s issues is constrained by party policies which is why they might not be able to vote in favor of progressive legislation for women. The unsuccessful attempt to pass the domestic violence bill in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the last government is one such example.

Despite the existence of women’s wings, female politicians are not adequately represented at decision making levels; most political parties do not have women as top leadership. Women wings are used as campaigning bodies for male candidates rather than training grounds for women candidates to run in their own right. The findings from the interviews indicate that women politicians aren’t treated at par with their male counterparts by the party leaders.

The dearth of voice and agency can be causally linked to an absence of accountability within political parties. Even though frameworks to ensure female participation exist, there is a lack of internal accountability mechanisms within political parties. For example, Ayesha Gulalai’s sexual harassment charges were never formally investigated within Parliament or her party. The concept of women’s empowerment, particularly within the political domain, needs to be coupled with the notions of transparency, accountability, democratic decision making and rule of law.


Monday, 28 January 2019

Using wood as fuel

By Hussain Bux Mallah
A rural woman cooking roti using firewood as fuel
Photo credit: Wasim Gazdar

Recently, the PTI government rolled out 350,000 hectares of forests under the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project in KP. Given the applause that it received from national and international media, the newly elected government at the centre launched a tree plantation drive ‘Plant4Pakistan’ across the entire country. While this is likely to have positive implications for climate change, the resources invested in this project will provide little direct benefits to the poor. The impact of pollution on their health can be reduced if more investments are made in cleaner fuel.

Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-13 survey reports that majority of rural population has limited access to cleaner energy sources such as natural gas. According to Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES) 2015-16, a major share of fuel and lighting expenditure in rural households is incurred on firewood. About 31 percent of the fuel expenditure is on firewood, 8 percent comprises of dung cakes, 2 percent is coal, charcoal and kerosene and 9 percent is gas (via pipes or cylinders). A number of these fuel sources lead to high levels of pollution.

Even within poor households, pollutants from fuel affect the vulnerable the most. Our fieldwork in rural areas of Sindh found that preparing kitchen fuel and cooking are gendered activities. Collection of fuel is also time consuming, particularly for women and children. Many adolescent girls are withdrawn from school to help in domestic chores especially those relating to cooking. They also have to travel long distances to fetch wood.

Household Air Pollution (HAP) from cooking fuel is associated with a modest increase in child mortality. Women and adolescent girls are most vulnerable to health risks because of their exposure to smoke resulting from burning of firewood which releases carbon monoxide. Infants are particularly susceptible to diseases which can cause premature deaths. The study also provides the link between HAP and low birth weight, neonatal, post-neonatal deaths. Various chronic diseases are also associated with HAP including pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma.

Women’s exposure to smoke increases when they have to cook inside rooms during monsoon season. A household needs more fuel in windy, rainy and cold weather requiring women to heat water for their male members. Most women do multiple activities at a time, for example, cooking and breastfeeding are done simultaneously. In case of natural hazards such as floods, cooking becomes a high stressor for women.

Although tree plantation drives seem to be high priority areas of investment for governments, I strongly think that policymakers should also address the rights of the marginalized rural population using traditional energy sources. There is a need to increase access to cleaner sources like natural gas. A majority of rural areas are currently not connected to the gas supply system. Provision of gas pipelines is a federal subject and should be prioritized for improved health outcomes.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Towards a new regional agenda: bringing visibility to rural women in South Asia

By Saba Aslam
Women picking cotton in the fields, Sindh province
Photo credit: Wasim Gazdar
Across the world, women form an integral part of the agricultural sector. In much of South Asia, women make up a majority of the agricultural workforce, but the extent of their contribution remains unacknowledged in policy and public debates. They often undertake difficult physical labour, working long hours and are paid lower wages compared to their male counterparts if they are paid at all. LANSA research identified women’s agriculture work in South Asia as a critical mediating factor between household poverty and undernutrition. The recognition of women’s agricultural work and women as agricultural workers, moreover, was identified as a key entry point for leveraging agriculture for the improvement of nutrition.

LANSA research in India and Pakistan has already made a significant contribution to national debates and policy thinking on women agricultural workers. The ANH Academy Week in Kathmandu in 2017 offered an opportunity for taking this dialogue to the regional level. The advantages were clear. Despite many differences across the region – even within large countries such as India and Pakistan – there are many common strands that cross national boundaries. LANSA had already shown the value of collaborative research across these boundaries. It was also obvious that other researchers working on these issues had adopted comparable approaches and came up with similar findings. The diverse experiences across countries of engagements with policy and political processes also promised to be huge sources of insight and inspiration.

In 2018 LANSA was able to form a partnership with an influential global and regional stakeholder – namely UNWomen – to co-host a regional roundtable Recognizing the Rights of Women Agricultural Workers in South Asia: Roundtable on Policy, Politics and Impact. This was held in Bangkok in October 2018 and brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, including policymakers, representatives from governments, universities and research institutions, international organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs) and grassroots activists. The roundtable provided an exciting opportunity for the sharing of research findings and policy engagement experiences, and brought forward a new regional agenda that brings visibility to rural women’s rights.

A statement of joint recommendations was adopted by consensus by the participants to bring transformative change in the lives of women agricultural workers. This joint statement encapsulates a set of action recommendations that focus on policy, legal and programmatic changes to recognize, protect and promote the rights of women agricultural workers. It mirrors the voice of rural women who are excluded from many policy dialogues and lays out a range of provisions that women should receive from governments.

Legal recognition of women agricultural workers needs to be seen as a starting point, leading to ensuring that rights to equal and living wages, and the provision of social protection in the form of pensions, housing, childcare, free and quality healthcare including sexual reproductive health, education and maternity entitlements are established and enforced. The need to mobilise women agricultural workers and provide them a platform for discussion and articulation of their needs and demands, emerged as a strong component of the joint statement, given the near-total absence of such platforms, be it unions, associations or other forms of organisation.

Women agricultural workers’ voices need to be amplified across different fora – local, national and international. Policymakers, governments of all tiers, international agencies, local and community based organisations, communities and women agricultural workers themselves have to become a part of this regional agenda for women’s rights and benefits to be realized. The regional roundtable was one step towards recognizing the contribution of women agricultural workers and it ended on a positive and optimistic note. There was plenty of energy and commitment for continuing engagement with the issue.

*This blog was originally written for LANSA with inputs from Haris Gazdar and Nitya Rao