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Gender empowerment?

Gulmina Bilal Ahmad

For gender mainstreaming and gender equity to move beyond jargons, we need to move beyond projects and concentrate on processes. Change always takes time and its due course.

By the time these words are printed, Pakistan would have a female foreign minister. She would be the same lady who had the honour of being the only woman in the country’s history to have presented the national budget.

As I write, the media has gone crazy heralding this as a revolutionary step for gender empowerment. “Gender empowerment” and “gender equity” are the buzzwords nowadays, but like most jargons, often mentioned but often misunderstood.

Even in the corridors of power and the symbols of democracy, these words only stand as a formality or a tool for political point-scoring. In Pakistan, women have been exploited and suppressed under the male dominant culture, which has been prevalent in society since centuries. There are shining examples but these are only a few who challenged the taboos of society and took initiative in their respective fields to acquire the status they deserved.

There are positive role models but regrettably these and many other examples were not enough to change the mindset of our society, which still adheres to norms that were made centuries earlier and where the role of women had been minimised and submission was the only option left for them. We will have to move beyond individual examples and focus upon the general challenges facing women in Pakistan.

Cases of domestic violence, biasness, honour killings, harassment and rape are largely prevalent in the 21st century Pakistan. These crimes are not only present in the rural areas but also the urban areas as well. Poverty, low rate of literacy and lack of awareness exacerbates the challenge.

The deprivation of women’s rights prevents them from attaining the status of an equal citizen. Access to justice system for women yet needs improvement. While women constitute half of the country’s population, they have been refrained from actively contributing in reformation and development. In addition, during the recent war on terror, radical elements have also exploited women for their own vested agenda. The appearance of female suicide bombers and the burqa-clad brigade of the Red Mosque are prime examples. In Swat, initially the Taliban aimed to influence women through their sermons; ironically, as soon as they gained a grip on the area, women were the most to suffer at their hands. The shutdown and destruction of female schools and colleges, apart from the widely publicised public flogging of women, were part of the Taliban policies.

Civil society organisations can play a very important role and I do not mean only non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The tragedy is that the word ‘civil society’ has become synonymous with only NGOs. Media is also a part of civil society. It is only when organisations like the Aurat Foundation (AF) and Shirkat Gah to mention a few, partner with media organisations and platforms that we can see the beginning of sustainable mindset change. Till now the issue of gender equality had been placed on the backburner while the media has been busy in glamorising or brutalising women. Financial support for initiatives and linkages is essential and here international donors like USAID, the European Union, etc, can facilitate. However, an interface between donors, deep rooted rights-based organisations like the AF and the media is what has been missing for decades in our work. The sooner these linkages are established, the better.

Some progress has been made because of USAID, AF media sensitisation sessions on gender equity. One point to ponder upon is that there are many organisations that are already engaging the media on various issues including gender equity. But would it end up in consolidating the effort or would it only create duplicity? It is imperative that donor organisations and civil society should aim towards consolidation. A profound need assessment is the requirement of the hour. These organisations should coordinate with representing bodies such as journalist unions and press clubs, to carry out a gap analysis, in order to avoid duplication of effort. This assessment can further be utilised to build up on any current initiatives. As the situation in various parts of the country also differs, the programmes can be customised according to the requirements of the local media. As I have mentioned before, media is an ally and as per conventional wisdom a common objective should be present among allies. Civil society cannot expect the media to perform unless and until its needs are not catered to. Active coordination is the solution and an active coordination of civil society with the media will also assist in mobilisation of public opinion.

For gender mainstreaming and gender equity to move beyond jargons, we need to move beyond projects and concentrate on processes. Change always takes time and its due course. Someone who thinks that a series of workshops or a few projects will result in altering society probably has a utopian image in mind. It will take years of effort and countless such activities and building up on those activities, which will eventually yield the proper result. But in order to reach there, a first step has to be taken and that is where we are standing now.

Continuous struggle is the key here, as women empowerment will not be achieved overnight. Creating awareness and sensitisation within society will take time. Every aspect of the problem will have to be addressed and each section will have to be engaged. The media will play an essential role in this long struggle, towards creating awareness and finally achieving women empowerment. It will be responsible for attaining the sustainability and consolidating on the foundations already laid down during the initiatives.

Source: Daily Times

Date:7/22/2011

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