Two trajectories

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Luay Shabaneh

LAST summer, I had the privilege of joining a Canadian delegation on a field mission to monitor a UNFPA-Canada-supported initiative — the Sihat Mand Khaandaan (SMK) programme — focused on promoting ‘healthy families’. Our journey led us to the heart of Memon Gi Wasi village in Matiari district, Sindh, where we were welcomed to an “adolescent and youth-friendly space”.

A few dozen young people and some delegation members sat on the sand under an old wooden roof, where we were briefed by the youth about their hopes and challenges and how their engagement with SMK activities had improved their lives. I eagerly absorbed the valuable insights of young women who had managed to discover hope amidst adversity and daunting circumstances. They were brilliantly drawing roadmaps and shaping their dreams, while benefiting from their participation in youth activities and methods they employed to help their communities.

The presentations by these amazing young females reminded me of the UNFPA model for the trajectory of the 10-year-old girl introduced in 2014. The model assumes two trajectories for the girl; the first is what I called at the time ‘shining’, and the alternative is ‘down-nosing’. The shining trajectory starts by keeping the girl at school, protecting her from child marriage, in fact, delaying her marriage until she completes her education and is equipped with skills and confidence, provided a decent job opportunity and empowered to enjoy her rights. This leads to better health for the girl, a smaller family, lifelong education, and economic independence. Ultimately, she will be better equipped to make decisions about her own reproductive health and raise healthy, happy children, making her a woman leader in her family, community, and larger society, one who is fit to participate in politics and contribute to her nation’s prosperity.

On the flip side, the downward trajectory starts with a 10-year-old girl discontinuing her education, leading to early or child marriage, early pregnancy, a growing number of children, health challenges, lack of skills, difficulty in securing stable employment, limited access to education, and heightened vulnerability to gender-based violence (GBV).

The accelerators to lift the girl from the down-nosing to shining trajectory were identified by strengthened systems (education, sexual and reproductive health, GBV prevention and response), programmes (population and youth policies, capacity building for quality service provision, laws and policies upholding SRH rights, criminalising violence against women and ending discrimination), and individual capabilities (lifelong education, enabling work environment, knowledge, skills, opportunities and income-generating activities). Go­­vernment spending on a 10-year-old on the down-nosing trajectory is far higher than the cost of investing in her education, skills, and opportunities in the shining trajectory.

Although investing in women is a human right, governments, too, can gain multiple benefits from such investment. Cultural barriers and discriminatory social norms are often guarded by community gatekeepers, including women who enable the reinforcement of discriminatory value systems and myths within the household and family structure. Women with a high level of human capital are the natural agents of change in social norms that prevent socioeconomic progress.

Research shows that people live in cycles, and socioeconomic and demographic cycles are interlinked with strong association. Poor families are trapped because they have a bigger family size, a higher dependency on breadwinners, are uneducated and unhealthy, and have fewer chances of getting high-income jobs because of their economic burden. Breaking out of this vicious cycle and transitioning to a more prosperous path requires a change in family demographics, and this usually requires investments in women’s human capital and opportunities.

Discussions at a recent population conference highlighted the experience of Bangladesh, Iran, Indonesia, Tunisia, and Turkey, which showed that investing in women’s human capital, skills, rights, and opportunities comprise a multiplying factor in calibrating population with resources. Pakistan lags behind countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, which have achieved remarkable progress in recent years in terms of economic growth and empowering women and integrating them as productive members of society. For example, the female labour force participation rate in Pakistan is 24 per cent compared with 43pc in Bangladesh and 55pc in Malaysia.

Pakistan has no choice but to allocate substantial funds and design long-term programmes to invest in women and girls to shift the nation’s trajectory from ‘down-nosing’ to the ‘shining’ approach.

The writer is the representative of the UN Population Fund in Pakistan.