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Women disempowered

A HUSBAND forcibly shaves his wife’s head. Her parents file an FIR, the husband is arrested and the parents take the woman home. But that is not the end of the story.

A visit to the family reveals the woman was only a girl – barely 15. With her head tightly wrapped in a cloth, she sits on a bed in the corner of the one-room mud house of her parents. Outside, her uncle agitates and anxiously speaks of threats from the girlÂ’s in-laws. There are the usual pressures to force the family to withdraw the case.

Excitedly, the girl’s mother recounts how she was informed by the women in the village about what had happened to her daughter. When she and her husband were not allowed to meet their daughter they went to the police station, filed a report and had the daughter recovered. By then 15 days had passed.

The girl’s husband was a gambler, and on that eventful day had told his wife to go to the man he was now indebted to. She refused, and that led to the husband shaving off her head. She was married three years ago and her husband was around 40 at that time. The father had taken Rs70,000 from the groom. He had sold his daughter said a man when the visitors inquired of the case from others in the district. There was some speculation that the father had taken away the daughter so he could sell her again. (So much for the security of the parental home.)

The visitors to the village paid tribute to the girl’s courage to say no to her husband and invited the parents and the girl’s uncle to a khuli katchery (open dialogue) they had organised on aurat ka ikhtiar (women’s empowerment). The parents agreed but the evening before the khuli katchery they expressed their inability to attend in view of the threats they had received.

The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) decided to give an award of self reliance to the girl. A WAF chapter had been formed in the district and it was to be introduced at the khuli katchery on women’s empowerment. The award was announced at the khuli katchery and displayed to the audience. It was an open wooden door symbolising the woman’s decision-making (ikhtiar), but the one to receive it was not there. The same evening it was delivered to her in her village, and the phone number of a WAF member of the district given to her – in case she needed help.

Surprisingly the numerous NGOs in the district had not taken any action on the case. Why did they not even protest or visit the victim or her family? There was a bit of surprise, but no understandable explanation for the inaction. Many of the NGOs work on issues of education, health, agriculture promotion, and some are linked to organisations that conduct human rights training. Why is there a disconnect between the violation of human rights and other aspects of life?

A group of women political activists appeared to be restless about the crimes against women. Obviously their weight within their political parties is not adequate to bring security in the lives of women. When political leaders are more concerned with the size of their cavalcade when they travel in their districts it is no surprise they can’t go beyond lip service to the rights of women and the poor.

Insecurity of young women at the hands of their own families or in-laws continues unabated in Pakistan. Girls married to more than one man; girls sold by their parents; husbands asking wives to appease other men to whom the husbands are indebted; women kidnapped to put pressure on families to return the girls who married into those families; and women killed after being declared kari. Newspapers today bristle with such news.

A domestic violence bill is ready to be tabled, but it does not categorically propose that the declaration of kari be made illegal. Its biggest challenge lies ahead when it faces the legislators (mostly men). Are they convinced that women have the inalienable right to not be abused in any manner? If the rulers and legislators, whether military or civilian, were convinced of the human rights of women (as they are convinced of their right to privileges) the women of Pakistan would not be as betrayed as they are today.

Teaching institutions don’t lag behind in teaching about the plight of women. However, what they teach and what practices their students engage in appear irrelevant to the women whose lives are bartered away or simply extinguished, or plunged into a silent horror when not killed but sold to live the life of an outcast in the family of the buyer who disposes of her as his whim directs.

The women of Pakistan continue with their struggle for peace and justice, and that alone is the modest comfort offered to millions who lead a life of disempowerment. While government and non-government actors clamour to associate womenÂ’s empowerment with the crumbs of education, healthcare and skills-training they dish out, women’s disempowerment persists. The negligence of state and non-state actors to integrate women’s security in all sectors legitimises the disempowerment of women.

Verbal acclamations, whether in policy documents or project proposals, are meaningless unless they are backed by action for women’s empowerment (ikhtiar). Unless this begins to happen on a large scale, the state and non-state actors of Pakistan stand guilty of failing the women of Pakistan.
Source: Dawn
Date:11/24/2008

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