Listening to the voices of inequality

UN Development Programme
5 min readApr 12, 2022


Investigating the many different ways marginalized Pakistanis experience adversity.

UNDP research shows ‘time poverty’ affects women more than men, even from a young age. Photo: UNDP Pakistan

For the last few years, I have been privileged to speak to marginalized communities all over Pakistan.

The consultations formed part of the National Human Development Report on Inequality (NDHR).

Our days would be spent in cramped windowless rooms in the sweltering heat of Tharparkar; on a charpoy (wooden cot) next to withered crops in Multan that were a farmer’s only means of income; seated at plastic tables at NGOs in Peshawar where people wore bright smiles and threadbare clothes — to return to our air-conditioned hotels as we sat down to condense the stories we had heard into a few lines that would pass rigorous tests of authenticity.

It has been an extraordinary look into the lives of the transgender community, persons with disabilities, women, youth, small farmers, informal workers, displaced people, and many more.

Poverty can be sexist

According to Oxfam International, women are more likely to live in poverty than men. However, this issue is more complex than it first appears. The NHDR consultations demonstrated that even at the same levels of poverty, women suffer harsher consequences than men.

We spoke with children in Karachi, Sindh. Many lived in Orangi Town, one of Asia’s largest slums. Clean water has historically been a challenge, and the young girls we spoke to, many of whom were under the age of 12, said they accompany their mothers daily to carry water back to their homes in buckets. This ‘time poverty’, affects women more than men, even from a young age. In fact, women do at least twice as much unpaid care work as men — and sometimes even ten times as much.

We spoke to young women aged between 17 and 20 from Akhagram in Upper Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most were already married and none was engaged in informal or formal labour. They explained that while there were public colleges in their region, they were not accessible by foot. Fees were costly, and so their parents sought higher education only for their sons. Because of lack of inspiration and limited to no choices, these women did not have grand ambitions or much hope for their lives.

The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) targets cash transfers to vulnerable and deserving women and their families from the poorest households across the country’. In our consultations, we met countless women who were recipients of these transfers, from all over Pakistan.

In Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, we met women who used the money to stock up on nutritious food, and to buy essential supplies and medicines. Most women spent extra cash on their children, and said it empowered them to make better decisions for the health and well-being of their family.

Women bonded labourers in Umerkot, Sindh, were recipients of the BISP cash transfer as well. Because this transfer requires you to have a valid CNIC (Computerized National Identity Card), all these women had identity cards. This was a departure from most women we spoke to in rural parts of the country. One woman from Multan told us that she had never voted, because her husband does not allow her to get her photograph taken.

Cash transfers gave some women a small degree of autonomy. At the same time, they allowed some of the most marginalized to get onto national records — an important step towards progress.

Environmental resilience is important

UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020 talks about the importance of living in balance with our planet, and the ways in which this can create a fairer world for all. The report highlights how we have taken the Earth for granted, and in turn destabilized the very systems upon which we rely for survival. The NHDR consultations gave us insight into this delicate balance.

On the one hand, we learned that inequality and poverty amplify the climate crisis in multitudes of small ways. Coal loaders in Spin Karez, Balochistan, spoke about how rental and other costs in their industry increase when diesel prices rise. To keep their jobs they are forced to burn old tyres or leather shoes. These small ‘adjustments’ combine to have a hugely detrimental effect on the environment, to say nothing of their health.

At the same time, small farmers in Multan, Punjab were acutely aware of the recent locust swarms that decimated their cotton crop . Climate change and abnormally heavy rainfall in the Horn of Africa have led to a huge increase in locust numbers in Pakistan. These small farmers, already struggling to make ends meet, might soon be one of the many casualties of the global climate crisis.

To reduce inequality, listen to those who experience it

This lesson ties into the start of this piece. Inequality encompasses a wide spectrum of deprivations, extending far beyond income and wealth. It is also centred around accessibility, gender, status, and opportunity.

The theme of accessibility, especially at hospitals, schools and government institutions, came up many times with persons with disabilities in Quetta. One of our participants who used a wheelchair told us how she does not drink water if she leaves the house, because of the lack of accessible public washrooms. At the same time, this community spoke about the need to disseminate information about vaccine-preventable injuries and illnesses more effectively. A few of our participants had polio and lamented the fact that people in their localities did not trust vaccinations. They felt if they could just reach out to enough people and recount their own first-hand experiences, they would be able to make a difference.

Transgender women from Karachi, Sindh, told us that the general public does not know the difference between ‘transgender’ and ‘inter-sex’. They spoke of the importance of creating awareness on this topic, and especially of engaging members of the transgender community to design programmes that would benefit public officials, corporations, as well as school children.

I firmly believe that one of the best ways to create inclusive policies and development initiatives is to ground them in evidence and lived experience. This can only be done through greater and truer representation, especially of the country’s more marginalized communities.

Our consultations allowed us a glimpse into the contours of inequality. The overwhelming realization was that inequality gives birth to isolation. It renders people invisible, creating distant pockets of ‘others’ that cannot speak on their own terms.

The NHDR 2020 is a culmination of these stories, told to the best of our efforts. They are devastating and uncomfortable one moment, and encouraging and hopeful the next. You can read more of our insights from the field in the Pakistan National Human Development Report 2020 on Inequality.

The NHDR 2020 consultations were conducted by Sana Ehsan, Meeran Jamal, Aroub Farooq, and Momina Sohail from UNDP Pakistan’s Development Policy Unit. The photos were taken by Shuja Hakim, Muhammad Mari, Sana Ehsan and Momina Sohail, UNDP Pakistan.

Author: Momina Sohail works at UNDP as Communications Officer for the Development Policy Unit. She can be reached at

Edited by: Ayesha Babar, Communications Analyst & Head of Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan