Family, workplace, and social change

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There is a recent report that a female member of the Balochistan provincial assembly was asked to leave after she brought her infant into the chamber. The report was quickly buried in the mainstream media but social media had something of a field-day with it, pointing out that there were child-care/crèche facilities in what looks like a majority of state institutions across the land, something of a quiet but no less welcome revolution.

The Supreme Court has in-house child care, and in the corporate sector at least one major English Language newspaper has ‘kids-to-work’ days when parents bring in their pre-school children and they play around in the office. Not exactly workplace childcare but a nod in the direction of changing working practices and social norms.

The Balochistan incident is probably exceptional, and it would be unwise to read too much into it beyond the fact that it is the least developed province in every sense of the word and the most under-invested by every government since Independence.

The fact that the incident happened at all is strongly indicative of change, that a woman decided it was appropriate to take her infant into the assembly tells us that such independence of thought and deed is probably not down to an isolated individual. There will be others, not assembly members, of similar frames of mind.

Pakistan is, like the rest of the world no matter how conservative or liberal the regime or culture, experiencing changes in the relationship between the worker, their family and particularly female members of the family, that are redfining both home and place of work. More women are coming into the workplace as families need more than a single earning hand to stay afloat financially.

There is an expanding middle class that have expectations set above the generation they are succeeding. For some women there are expanding options for working from home which goes a long way to solving the child-care problem if extended family members are not on hand, but for others there are increasing opportunities to take their pre-school children into the workplace where they may hot-desk or jobshare with another woman (or man).

It makes good sense for employers who can ‘hold on’ to female staff for longer. Many professional women may have left work when marriage and children came along – now there may be other options.

There is increasing evidence that the urban middle-class are having fewer children (the same cannot be said for poorer families that still tend to have more children) and this is a trend that can only increase over time. Despite the dire and oft-voiced predictions of social conservatives there has been no breakdown of the moral fabric of the nation. True it is that patriarchy is still dominant and is going to remain so, but simple force of circumstance and economic reality are making a rebalance necessary and in the process altering the shape of the power of women at a substructural level.

The New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern made her debut speech at the UN in New York last September with her baby Neve Te Aroha tagging along, cradled by her partner who in the Ardern household is the primary caregiver. She is the second elected leader to give birth in office the first being Benazir Bhutto, but it must be assumed she will not be the last. Nothing is forever, and that includes even the most rigid and conservative of societies. The exclusion of a female MPA from the Balochistan assembly can be regarded as the exception rather than the inevitable rule. Women and their children are changing the face of work in Pakistan, and the Balochistan provincial assembly needs to look at childcare provision for elected female representatives. Urgently.