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Remembering the women of Balochistan

By Sanaullah Baloch

The writer was a member of the Senate from 2003-08 and of the National Assembly from 1997-99. He tweets @Senator_Baloch

The ongoing dirty war in Balochistan has affected society at all levels. Women — mothers, sisters and daughters — are particularly affected because of the magnitude of the so-called ‘missing persons’ issue. Hundreds of men — fathers, husbands and sons — have gone missing, presumably abducted, killed and dumped on roadsides in the province.

However, some tearless Baloch women are bravely pushing the cultural and traditional barriers and campaigning for justice and truth, taking part in sit-in camps outside the Quetta and Karachi press clubs and sometimes on Islamabad’s “Constitution” avenue.

Politically conscious and culturally well endowed, resource-rich Balochistan is Pakistan’s least-developed province with a high rate of maternal mortality, female illiteracy, unemployment and gender disparity. Inflexible social customs and practices are widely blamed for the plight of Baloch women but the reasons are different and have more to do with state-sponsored discrimination against women in the province.

Islamabad has always tried to blame the Baloch themselves for their appalling state. However, facts and findings on health, education, communication, political empowerment and economic development clearly indicate that human development in Balochistan has been deliberately ignored by successive central governments — so, to blame the Baloch themselves is not entirely correct.

Women are discriminated against in the country at large, but in Balochistan they are discriminated by the state. They have no access to enabling opportunities, required for empowering women in any modern and civilised society. Discriminatory policies are not only resulting in slowdown of gender empowerment but effecting the overall social and economic development process.

The most devastating consequence of underdevelopment in any society is a high fatality rate. As a separate region, Balochistan has among the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of many underdeveloped Asian and African countries. For example, the maternal mortality rate for Karachi is 281 per 100,000 lives birth compared to 750 for rural Balochistan. The increasing rate of preventable maternal mortality is a symptom of larger social injustice.

Let’s move on to education. Access to education is crucial for empowering women so that they can participate in the economic, social and political life of their societies. Education unlocks a woman’s potential, and is accompanied by improvements in well-being of their families. According to a national survey measuring living standards, only 27 per cent of students in Balochistan complete primary or higher education, compared to 64 per cent in Punjab. The province also has a high dropout rate and it is that way not because of any cultural barriers but because there aren’t that many middle and high schools for girls. Again, the figures are telling: only 23 per cent of girls in rural Balochistan are able to enroll in primary schools compared to 47 per cent in rural Punjab.

Interprovincial gender inequality in the employment sector is also significant with the province suffering from high levels of female unemployment, especially when compared to Punjab. The latter also has 11 women’s vocational and training centers which enable them to learn skills needed to gain decent jobs — Balochistan has only one.

No development policy can succeed unless it is based on the needs and participation of people in the process. In Balochistan’s case, what people need is socioeconomic development, political empowerment, clean drinking water, electricity, education, basic health facilities, roads and infrastructure. But Islamabad’s policies achieve quite the opposite.

Under Article 25 of the Constitution, of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), women are entitled to several economic and social rights, such as rights to food, social security, housing, education and healthcare. But policy commitments have hardly been translated in to practice. On this International Women’s Day, we should not forget the hapless and neglected women of Balochistan.

The Express Tribune

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