Educate, empower women in Pakistan

Women constitute half the country's population, and so, should have a major stake in making the decisions that affect them, be it planning a family or planning their or the country's future.

By Waqar Mustafa (Gender Bender)

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Published: Mon 21 Jan 2019, 9:06 PM

Last updated: Mon 21 Jan 2019, 11:08 PM

Birth of 15,000 babies on the first day of 2019 in Pakistan has set the alarm bells rings. The Pakistan Medical Association, premier grouping of doctors, fear that such a trend could lead to an increase in the population of more than five million in a year, which'll make the South Asian nation of about 207 million people grapple with perilously low standards of education and healthcare.
The baby boom in the world's fifth most populous country has made more than 70 million people live below the poverty line, earning less than $2 per day. About 25 million children are out of school. The expected years of schooling in Pakistan are 8.6 years, lower than 12.3 years for India, 12.2 years for Nepal and 11.4 years for Bangladesh. The health system is overburdened. About 45 per cent of children under five are stunted and about 60 per cent of women and children are malnourished due to poverty, lack of a balanced diet, poor health services, illnesses linked to hygiene such as diarrhoea, and improper feeding practices.
Average life expectancy at birth was 66.6 years in 2017, below Nepal's at 70.6 years, India's 68.8 years and Bangladesh's 72.8 years. Experts warn that the fast-growing population, which is also causing environment degradation, deforestation and depletion of water resources, is set to make Pakistan the fourth most populous nation of the world by 2030, threatening the county's sustainable development prospects. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has called the country's burgeoning population as a "ticking time-bomb".
However, the population swell offers an opportunity as well. Pakistan has the largest percentage of young people - 64 per cent of the population is below 30 while 29 per cent is in the age group of 15 and 29 years - ever recorded in its history. The situation demands that the country harness their potential. According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan report titled "Unleashing the Potential of a Young Pakistan", this youth bulge will critically impact Pakistan as a country if not dealt with appropriately, depending on how the country invests in the youth by providing them with quality education, employment; and meaningful engagement opportunities. The report says that if engaged and utilised properly, the youth can serve as catalysts for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The World Bank backs this argument. "Pakistan has important strategic endowments and development potential. The increasing proportion of Pakistan's youth provides the country with a potential demographic dividend and a challenge to provide adequate services and employment," it says. Absorbing Pakistan's large youth bulge into productive activities will boost the per capita income and result in a demographic dividend. Illiterate, underemployed, or jobless youth will create alienation, violence and crime, and social and political instability, making the bulge a demographic disaster. 
However, population growth can be tackled well only when rights of children and women are protected, and inequalities in human development indicators for men and women are bridged. Women lag behind men across all three dimensions of human development: the expected years of schooling; access to health facilities, and labour force participation. Higher gender inequality has huge economic and social implications for the country. It should end forthwith. To quote Sindh province's Population Welfare and Health Minister Dr Azra Pechuho: "We have limited resources, limited area and limited water reserves, all [this] warrants that we should not have a rapid and haphazard population growth". Women, she said, are the ultimate sufferers. "Women are deemed child-producing factories at the expense of their own health and life. We have a horrible mortality ratio for mothers, at 178 out of 1,000," she said. Another reason for population growth is early marriage. It is estimated that 21 per cent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18 because of tradition, culture, and customary practices. Population growth can be reduced by one-tenth if child marriages are stopped in the country. 
Women's empowerment, in general, and girls' education, in particular, can help resolve the socioeconomic strain caused by overpopulation and ensure that people are provided basic services. Women constitute half the country's population, and so, should have a major stake in making the decisions that affect them, be it planning a family or planning their or the country's future. 
Waqar Mustafa is a journalist and commentator based in Pakistan

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