ISLAMABAD — Barely one-fifth of Pakistan's women work in paid jobs, according to the International Labor Organization. The group says a lack of safe, secure public transportation is one of the reasons even skilled and educated women are unable to break out of a cycle of grinding poverty.
Covered in the traditional headscarf as she waits in Islamabad's crowded Abpara market, nurse Farzana Liaqat says women don't feel safe using public local buses, and often have to wait hours for a seat.
In Pakistan, typically the two front seats next to the driver are reserved for women. The rest of the bus is for the men.
Syed Saad Gilani, who has studied the question of decent public transport for women for the ILO, says women complain of being inappropriately touched, pushed and humiliated on buses.
Farzana Liaqat says there's not much women can do about getting harassed.
“Neither the police nor the driver can protect women,” she said. “These days the police can't protect anyone, there is corruption, terrorism; women don't have any protection, they are not secure at all, they have to protect themselves.
Harassment on buses is just one aspect of the gender discrimination women face in Pakistan. Outside of the wealthy, women often face discrimination at home, on the streets, in public spaces and at the work place, says Gilani.
As a result, many poor and middle class women just stay home. That means, Gilani says, that “out of 100, only one woman in Pakistan is getting a formal job which is fully covered and fully secured.”
Despite gains in the job sector, women still only represent about 20 percent of the labor force - and most of those women are unpaid family workers in agriculture.
Pakistan's government has passed a series of laws to protect women, including a law against sexual harassment. But public awareness of the law is low.
Men like Iftikhar Ehmud, a local shopkeeper in a village just outside Islamabad, say it's a big effort to send women to school or to work.
"If I send my female relatives for education or for work in a hospital then it takes two people to get her there, because I have to accompany her up to the bus in which she is traveling and then I have to talk to the bus driver to make sure he drops her off safely at her destination," he explained.
Farzana Bari, a professor of gender studies at Qaid-e-Azzim University in Islamabad, says it is a question of changing an entire mindset and criminalizing behaviors against women.
"I think we are failing sort of at both levels,” she says. “We haven't been able to change people's mindset because we fail to provide education, we fail to give them a sufficient level of exposure so the people should know, and we fail to even provide conditions where women themselves can be empowered enough to protect themselves against all kinds of cultural and traditional violence.”
Bari adds that her graduate students who speak out against gender discrimination often are treated as misfits.
“They say when they talk about it, their family rejects them, their friends reject them, and say ‘what are you talking about?’" she said.
Bus drivers say they are not able to push men out of their seats to accommodate women in a way that is acceptable to Pakistan's conservative society. Faced with rising fuel costs, they also argue that starting women-only bus runs is just not financially viable.
So even though the government is passing protective legislation, and more women in Pakistan are getting educated and gaining skills, many still face considerable challenges trying to earn their way into a better life.