Promises! Promises! Promises! Promises are meant to be broken, especially when they are made in the context of women’s rights and status. This is the sad reality of Pakistan’s leadership backing off from meeting its commitments to the international community and, more importantly, to its own citizens. In the past few decades, Pakistan has signed and ratified many significant UN conventions and covenants, only to fall far short when it comes to implementation or amending local laws to bring them in conformity with international standards.
Pakistan has also committed itself to meeting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the objective of building on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While all 17 have an impact on women since they form 50pc of the world’s population, SDGs 5 specifically covers gender equality and women’s empowerment. In fact, at a meeting of world leaders in New York on September 27, 2015, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was among those who were vociferous in making firm commitments to meet the goal of gender equality. Anniversaries are a time for taking stock. Pakistan has had to contend with many such occasions and has, on each occasion, tried to put up a good face before interlocutors from the international community. This process has unfolded before each Universal Periodic Review conducted by the Human Rights Council at the United Nations, where Pakistan’s representatives try and put up a brave front in defending the country’s human rights record. Meanwhile, the Gender Gap Index 2015 ranked Pakistan second from the last among 145 countries in terms of the prevalence of gender-based disparities.
The broad areas of the SDGs are fighting poverty, inequality and injustice, and handling the fallout from climate change. These socio-economic issues have a direct bearing on women’s lives and, while a year may not be enough to assess the fulfillment of commitments, the stark reality of women’s status does not give reasons for optimism. The past year, if anything, has seen a rise in violence against women. Many cases, particularly of honour killings, have hit the headlines due to either the level of brutality or the identity of the victim. Till the writing of this article, the much publicised law against honour killings promising to make the crime non-compoundable has not been presented in the National Assembly. Provincial assemblies, meanwhile, have made some strides in bringing about legislation ensuring justice for women — including the Sindh Early Marriage Restraint Act, 2013 and the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016. In fact, apart from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which chose to send its draft bill on domestic violence to the Council of Islamic Ideology for approval, other provinces have legislated to make domestic violence a crime.
Violence against women, because of the nature of violation, continues to be the most reported issue when it comes to media coverage of women. However, little attention is given to the other insurmountable challenges women face in their daily lives. Rooted mostly in poverty and poor infrastructural development, women battle economic obstacles – including inadequate nutrition, water shortages, and poor sanitation – effecting the survival of families. Under these conditions the goal of ending discrimination against women and girls and of empowering them – one of the objectives of the SDGs – remains remote and is likely to remain so in 2030, the year designated for the achievement of goals.
Additionally, given that the right to life is the most basic and fundamental human right, a high number of mothers continue to be denied this right as maternal mortality rates showed an increase in 2015 from 2014. Globally, Pakistan’s ranking in the Mother Mortality Ratio (MMR) slipped to 149 from 147 – just ahead of Afghanistan – according to the State of the World’s Mothers 2015 report by Save the Children. The MMR has remained on the higher end at 170/1000 deaths, far from the MDG 2 target of 140/1000 deaths. Illiteracy, food insecurity, inadequate nutrition, low financial allocations, rising security expenditures have been cited as impediments when meeting MDG targets. However, the repercussions of denying women the right over their body or reproductive rights are not even being considered. Poverty, poor health and illiteracy make almost 50pc of the country’s population who are not full participants in the realm of socio-economic development. The low status of women, in fact, deprives the state of realising the full productive potential of half the population. While literacy remains an insurmountable challenge, with few improvements recorded since devolution to the provinces, female illiteracy in rural areas has a further impact on the low status of women — making them even more vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
When Pakistan finally ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996, there was sufficient optimism. Women’s rights activists saw the development as a significant victory for women. However, two decades later, the articles of CEDAW are far from being implemented. Political participation, for example, is one area where, apart from poor progress, impediments are actually placed to prevent women from playing an active role in the democratic process. And that is, in fact, the starting point for the achievement of many rights women are guaranteed but denied access to. Will the SDGs be a game-changer? Don’t hold your breath — unless the provinces take on their responsibility to accord women their rights ensuring legal, economic and political changes by addressing key challenges such as poverty, inequality and violence against women.