Climate change, mobility, and women’s economic empowerment in Pakistan

May 14, 2018

Women and children riding the Lahore Bus Rapid Transit ( Lahore Metro Bus) service

Deeply rooted social norms and household responsibilities prevent women in Pakistan from moving around independently, and women are also more negatively affected by environmental degradation and climate change than men, researchers have found. Now researchers from LEAD Pakistan have identified several policy avenues to address barriers to women’s ability to engage in paid work, go to school, and stay safe and healthy in their daily lives.

The team’s work feeds into a broader research project led by the Urban Institute, which analyzes the positive and negative effects of economic growth on women's lives in Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, and Pakistan. This broader project is one of 14 under the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program, a multi-donor initiative with the UK’s Department for International Development, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and IDRC.

The project’s goal is to improve understanding of the factors that prevent women from benefitting from economic growth, including globalization, climate shocks (extreme climate events such as floods and heatwaves), and urbanization.

Despite Pakistan’s economic growth rate of 4.7% over the past three years, the Asian Development Bank reports that women’s labour force participation in the country hovers at only 25% — the lowest in the region after Afghanistan. Women face discrimination in the workplace, harassment on the way to their jobs, and are up against deeply engrained social norms that keep them in the home. This remains true for even the most educated women; universities in Pakistan have more than 50% female enrollment.

Climate change effects are harder on women

Climate shocks and environmental degradation are common in informal settlements (also known as slums), because of poor infrastructure. A study led by Hina Lotia (PDF, 2,702KB), director of programs at LEAD Pakistan, found that these hazards contribute to the disempowerment of women.

The study examined the effects of environmental degradation on women in informal settlements in Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and New Delhi, India. After shocks like floods, women are more likely to lose their livelihoods because they typically engage in work close to or in their homes. As a result, they spend more time in their neighbourhoods and are more vulnerable to the effects of the slum’s poor infrastructure and sanitation services. For example, the time women could dedicate to paid work, political action, or leisure decreased because of their own poor health caused by their exposure to unsanitary conditions, or by having to care for children and other household members whose health was affected.

In the study areas, there are fewer public washrooms for women, or in some cases none at all. Women will often wait to relieve themselves until after dark, which has health and personal safety consequences. In addition, female-headed households in informal settlements are among the poorest in the communities. They are at greater risk of violence due to loss of shelter and income and experience negative health consequences at a higher rate than for men.

The study proposes a number of policy priorities and actions to change how decisions are made in informal settlements to improve women’s resilience to climate shocks and degradation. Poor hygiene and overcrowding are common issues, and access to basic services such as clean water and power would go a long way to improve the conditions of women.

The research team also found that the design of climate change adaptation and recovery strategies is flawed. Because these programs are considered “gender-blind”, they are often developed in consultation with local leaders, who are mostly men. But consultations with women are essential if their needs are to be addressed, and this would also increase dialogue within communities.

Women need safe transport

Deeply held social norms in Pakistan restrict women from going out alone. Speaking at a conference in Islamabad convened by LEAD Pakistan in February, Jamshed Kazi, the country representative for UN Women in Pakistan, noted that because many women have to negotiate the ability to go out independently, they rarely report harassment for fear of jeopardizing this privilege. Even when incidents are reported, women said they had a fear of retribution and a lack of trust in law enforcement officials.

 A study conducted in Lahore (PDF, 1,515KB) found that the vast majority of women respondents experienced sexual harassment during their commute. Issues like overcrowding, verbal harassment, and touching are common. Women reported feeling especially fearful of taking transport after dark, which limited their ability to work jobs with evening hours. Incidents are most common during waits at bus stations or during the walk home from the bus stop, when women typically have to walk alone at night in unlit areas.

Researchers at the Urban Institute are building an app to allow women to anonymously report incidents on transportation to highlight the extent of the problem and to identify high risk areas and common issues. Researchers and advocates at the Islamabad conference also recommended testing short-term solutions, such as women-only buses or sections of trains, gender-sensitivity training for drivers, increased surveillance and enforcement to encourage reporting, better lighting at bus stops, and information campaigns to raise awareness of laws and the impact of harassing behaviour.

Changing attitudes and behaviours

However, we can’t expect long-term impact from short-term solutions. Changing the attitudes and behaviours of men is critical for lasting change. For example, women-only buses may prove effective now, but the system needs to simultaneously address the reason why segregation in public spaces is necessary.

Women need to feel safe and secure while engaging in their daily activities and using public spaces. Social norms take many years to change, and women’s mobility constraints have immediate consequences on their ability to learn and work.

Women’s economic empowerment can only be achieved when they have equal status in their communities and in society. When women are excluded from paid employment they cannot contribute to economic growth. This research is helping to build a clear economic case for improving the environment in which women access work, to encourage them to find paid opportunities.