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Women: Expectations and anguish

By Dr. Firoza Ahmed

In cultures where widows have very little space in society, life is most grim. The same is also true of the elderly single woman. At this point how can one not recognise the brave role particularly of Pakistani communities whose members leave no stone unturned to care for the desolate and anguished women who have no one to turn to.

Having said this, let us review the life and situation of women on a global scale. According to a UN report on women’s status and contribution in society one finds enormous disparities between women and men in public life. Although these disparities have narrowed yet wide gaps remain. While women have the right to vote which indeed is a landmark in every sense. Yet in reality they rarely have equal access to political careers or political power even in developed countries.

In so far as government jobs in the third world countries are concerned, most women are employed in jobs, which do not meet their expectations. However, women are invariably located in ministries of education, social welfare, women’s development, culture, special education and media.

World wide the picture, too, is a desolate one. Starting revelations in the Report indicate that in about 49 countries women do not have any slots in decision-making positions at any highest tiers of government. In only 6 countries women hold more than 22% jobs of ministerial rank. In so far as Asia is concerned, the situation is a less happy one. Women’s participation in decisions that influence their own life is thus negligible. Only 10% of countries parliamentarians on average in Asia were women thus making their participation in the political process and in career civil service grossly inadequate.

Credit for some sustained effort in promoting women in public sector must indeed go to governments of developing countries. It is for this reason that women have some advantages in the public sector. Happily women have access to benefits and increment as well as steady pension support. Philippines and Sweden show that public administrations are taking the lead in employing women in all sectors of the economy. Public enterprises, too, have made headway in employing women who are better educated than their colleagues in other agencies. A renewed sense of discipline has moved these countries to utilise women’s initiatives according to their own aspirations. While reviewing the figures in the United Nations, one does not find fair portion of women located in many high profile jobs. Statistics reveal that these women who do manage to reach top slots are generally not in a position to encourage other women to join in too. Below senior levels of jobs in which decision-making is required, the representation of women employees at the most junior professional levels tends to be incredible.

As far as women’s participation in economic decision-making is concerned, there is hardly woman heading an economic Ministry or Finance Corporation. In the economic sector the pattern in most Asian and African countries is that women are engaged in clerical positions in banks and accountants at best in related financial institutions, where the need for variation in implementation methods or introduction of innovative modalities is beyond one’s realm of comprehension.

In sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia and Western Asia illiteracy rates are highest. More than 70 per cent of women aged 25 and over are still illiterate. Some of the reasons include the growing populations in developing regions, which are outpacing educational efforts and resource as well as cultural taboos that restrict girls to go to schools located at a distance. While illiteracy rates have dropped, actual number of illiterate girls and women has increased. UNESCO’s definition of illiteracy is widely used in national population censuses but its interpretation varies among countries. Furthermore, this concept of illiteracy does not include women who, though familiar with basics of reading and writing, might still be considered functionally illiterate in many of our societies. This, of course is the scenario about illiteracy statistics in Pakistan and of Pakistani women in general.

It was pointed out that creating change by women in communities is equivalent to addressing problems that affect their life. Teaching therefore has always been one of the first professions open to women, making the number of women teachers a revealing indicator of employment opportunities. In addition, women teachers are important role models for young girls particularly in cultures where male-teachers are taboo. A dedicated and loving teacher is the next best thing to young girls in Pakistani communities.

Women increasingly are enrolling in colleges and universities, but enormous disparities exist. The reality is that women can indeed make a contribution to both economic and social development if they are trained in agriculture and non-agriculture activities. There is no doubt that with progressive redistribution of resources for developing skills in forestry and fishing in areas where such activities predominate, rural women would reap social advantages both at home and in the community. With little access to appropriate training, women lag far behind in tasks that require professional skills of managing programmes, or increasing productive capacities of other rural women.

Can we ever question the fact that all happiness revolves around little girls in our families? It is these little girls who provide the gleam in parents’ eyes. In rural areas girls contribute much to family welfare and income, quite often-working seven or more hour a day. However historical pattern of discrimination against girls are evident in data available on the subject. This provides a sad story when we compare women’s mortality with men’s.

Across the world, women are having fewer now than 30 years ago. From 1970 to 1990 childbearing rates dropped from an average of 2.6 to 1.8 births per women in the developed regions and from a range of 5-7 to a range of 3-6 in developing regions.

Inadequately nourished women, are about half the women in Asia and Africa. This limits their physical development, and threatens their ability to bear healthy children. In regions where infant and child mortality is high, birth rates are high. This places great stress on childbearing women and traps them and their children in a vicious cycle of poor health, desolation and aimlessness.

Better nutrition, access to appropriate health care, education and family planning are keys to improving women’s health and reducing their reproductive cycle. With good healthcare women have control over their childbearing functions?

Women in poor countries who become pregnant face a risk of death due to pregnancy that is 80 to 600 times higher than those of women in developed regions. Let it be known that family planning is not a substitute for health services or health facilities, especially for women living in rural areas. Poor transport networks do not allow easy access to medical facilities, which are invariably centred in cities and charge a great deal of money even before doctor’s examination.

Women’s life expectancy increased faster than men’s in every region of the World between 1970 and 1990. The average different life expectancy is five years in Latin America and the Caribbean, 3.5 years in Africa and three years in Asia and the Pacific. This reveals that women are more likely than men to be widowed in old age. Consequently widowed become dependent on the state. Their children and relatives also consider them a burden. Relatives generally tend to avoid meeting them for fear that they may be asked for help.

Women’s life expectancy varies among regions. In developed regions, it is now 75 years or more in almost every country, and in developing countries it is more than 70 years – including 11 in Asia and the Pacific and 1 in Africa. Globally, the lowest life expectancies for women are in Afghanistan, East Timor, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone-only 42 or 43 years.

The up short of this review is that women need to be made aware of their own attitudes towards personal enrichment and their own ambivalences. Let us remind ourselves that women need to be facilitated to grow in ‘self-awareness’ even in the midst of struggle and often overwhelming despair.

The writer is a free lance contributor.

Source: The News

Date:9/28/2004

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