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$750 million earmarked for tribal women

ISLAMABAD: The government’s Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is designating $750 million, nearly half from US coffers, to create jobs and alleviate poverty by providing women with funds for food, health and training in the tribal belt.

Pakistan is also home to some of the lowest social indicators in the world. Unemployment is rife, education abysmal. With 70 percent of men illiterate and more than 50 percent unemployed, the path to terrorism is an easy one. But when a woman wearing a veil blew herself up killing at least 43 people at a UN food handout point in the tribal district Bajaur last December, alarm bells started ringing that the Taliban were now recruiting the fairer sex.

Rarely educated and mostly confined to home, tribal women are a forgotten half of society and are frequently targeted by terrorists. Girls’ schools have been blown up, while extremists reportedly barred nearly half a million women from voting in Pakistan’s last election in 2008.

“Poverty is the main reason for extremism and terrorism,” said BISP head Farzana Raja. “We will provide these people with skills instead of Kalashnikovs,” she said. Beyond direct government control and seen as a refuge for Taliban networks fighting US-led troops in Afghanistan, the tribal belt is on the front line of a covert and deeply controversial US drone war against terrorist commanders.

Despite women’s marginal position in tribal society, the BISP insists women are better beneficiaries of aid than men, who may be more inclined to waste handouts. Women accepted on the scheme because of straightened circumstances initially receive a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000, then Rs 300,000 to help fund self-employment and complete family health insurance.

Although the programme has already registered 3.5 million women elsewhere in Pakistan since October 2010, Raja told journalists that the tribal belt is the main concern. “We need to solve the problems of these people and eliminate poverty from these sensitive districts more rapidly than in other parts of the country.”

Several would-be beneficiaries in Bajaur, where Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban was criticised by the White House last week, welcomed the programme. “If we are instrumental in providing jobs, employment and money to our men in the family, we are in better position to stop them joining the Taliban,” said 30-year-old housewife, Minhas in Bajaur’s main town of Khar.

Azakhela, 70, is married to a bedridden 80-year-old who has been unable to work for years. Their three sons are unskilled and have no vocational training — precisely the kind of disaffected men that can be lured by terrorists. Their shop — funded by the programme — could change all that.

“I have set up a shop of electronic parts for my son from the money government charity gave me,” said Azakhela, who lives in Rawalpindi.

“He now earns around Rs 12,000 per month and has improved our family’s financial condition.”

Azakhela says the government gave her Rs 100,000 and promised to provide further assistance of Rs 200,000 to expand the business. But while Pakistan understands the root causes of terrorism, Western-funded aid projects have poor track records in terms of bringing about radical change and questions have been raised about money being spent effectively.

The United States has $334 million to the scheme with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank contributing $410 million. A US government report in February warned that the United States had failed to show progress from billions of dollars in aid committed in recent years to help Pakistan with electricity, health care and education. Analysts predict real change in the tribal belt will take a generation to cascade through its deeply conservative society, and will occur only with the help of proper education. Women are also so entrenched as second-class citizens that it is likely to take more than handouts to change perceptions.

Source: Daily Times