The female literacy rate in Pakistan is as low as 48 percent and women are consistently underrepresented across all STEM, (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields in the country. Despite challenges in access to quality education interestingly, the field of medical education is an exception. According to the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PM&DC), the number of women in medicine has been rising consistently in the past decades, and in many medical institutions, more than 80% of the students are now women in comparison, about 47 percent of medical students in the U.S. are women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
However, paradoxically, only 45% of registered medical practitioners and a mere 27% of medical specialists are women. One of the reasons suggested by the Pakistani media for this gap is the desirability of women doctors as brides. A majority of these medical graduates do not practice medicine after graduation, resulting in a predominantly masculine physician workforce and an acute shortage of physicians in the country.
According to some statistics, thirty years back the female-male ratio in medicine was 20:80, now it is 70:30 and 54 percent of females are opting for post-grad education. However, most women medical graduates do not go on to practice medicine after graduation. One of the reasons suggested by Pakistani media and society for this increase in the number of women medical graduates is the desirability of women doctors in Pakistan’s marriage market.
Thousands of Pakistani women qualify as doctors every year, but the majority of them quit after they get married and have children. The phenomenon of “DrBride” is getting increasingly popular in Pakistan with women who do not practice medicine after marriage, Pakistan is a country that has a total medical workforce of nearly 200,000 certified doctors, yet for every 1,200 patients in a population of 219 million, there is only one doctor available. The blame for this shortage is often placed at the feet of women who are accused of wasting their medical education following graduation.
According to research conducted by Ayesha Masood, doctors are considered desirable as spouses and this influences women’s access to medical education. According to her women, doctors are valued as marital partners because of the status granted to them by their academic credentials, chaste educational experience, and potential to contribute to family income. The research explains that because of the value of medical education in marriage, parents are more willing to invest in their daughters’ education, facilitating women’s access to medical education. The research indicates that, as a way of bargaining with the patriarchy, women doctors accept the social norms of an arranged marriage because it allows them access to professional education, economic opportunities, and a better bargaining position in the marriage market. According to the research of Ayesha Masood, unless underlying patriarchal norms are addressed, potentially empowering projects like women’s education will be co-opted by the existing structures of domination. Her research also discusses potential implications for changing marriage patterns and increasing the representation of women in Pakistan’s medical workforce.
Shazia Aahad a student of medicine says that “unfortunately Pakistani society revolves around the subject of marriage and matchmaking. Girls have more pressure from their parents to study medicine because they can find good matches among financially stable families”. According to Shazia most such marriage is not necessarily loving marriages or based on understanding. “ Families are hunting for girls who are studying medicine or doctors to showcase her like a trophy” she added.
We cannot ignore the fact that Pakistan presently ranks among the worst countries in gender parity, only above Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. According to the “Global Gender Gap Report 2021” published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the gender parity index. The country ranked 7th among eight countries in South Asia, only better than Afghanistan. Pakistan’s gender gap has widened by 0.7 percentage points in just one year. The report shows that Pakistan needs 136 years to close the gender gap with the existing performance.
The level of women’s health in Pakistan is among the lowest in the world and compares unfavorably to that of women in neighbouring South Asian countries. In Pakistan, one in every 38 women dies from pregnancy-related causes while in Sri Lanka, it is one in 230.If action is not taken swiftly, Pakistan will fall further behind its Asian neighbours in human capital development and jeopardize future opportunities for economic growth. High fertility and women’s poor health not only seriously reduce family well-being and productive capacity in Pakistan, but also the development potential of tomorrow.
According to a news source, there are around 85000 female doctors, who completed their medical education at the expense of the state or privately but they are not part of the medical workforce in Pakistan. If only 50 per cent of these out-of-profession female doctors are mobilized, 7per centnt of health issues of people in low-income group communities can be resolved,
The author is a human rights activist and Tweets @QamarNaseemPak