Nighat Said Khan, women’s rights activist
By Ammara Ahmad
The News on Sunday: Though Pakistan is a signatory of a number of international commitments yet the gap between commitment and reality is too wide. Why?
Nighat Said Khan: There is an enormous gap, in terms of human development, specifically on gender indicators. It is one of the lowest in terms of gender equality. However, there has been women empowerment in politics and political policymaking. There are representatives on reserved seats, ambassadors, women in media, not just on-screen but also off-screen, running channels, producers, directors etc.
We might have the highest women political representation in the world but this only creates more gap because other indicators suggest we are at the bottom of women development.
One disturbing aspect is that Pakistan has a range of mechanisms to facilitate women empowerment. For example we have a ministry for women development along with a National Commission on Status of women; it is rare to have both. Then we also have mechanisms for affirmative action and separate provincial departments for women.
We have this gap because in Pakistan, we tend to have the same response for each problem — that is to form a committee, task force or commission. This adds an extra layer, which keeps us occupied, instead of the cause. On another level, poverty, education, health and the very patriarchal system we have here are reasons why we fail to follow our international commitments. Also, we are always on the cross-road of ideology of Pakistan and re-establishing what the status of women would be.
TNS: How can these obligations help/improve the status of women in Pakistan, especially those participating in public sphere?
NSK: These commitments are very crucial to women empowerment. Take CEDAW, which addresses a range of sectors like citizenship, economy, education, health and gives a yardstick to measure development and insist that we progress towards achieving these measures.
One hurdle is that the international community is led by the US. When the US wants to support a regime, it does so without much heed to the deteriorating women rights and humans rights situation. This happened in the Zia regime, which gained international support nevertheless. Sometimes, the US start supporting the women rights causes. CEDAW and the Platform for Action are very specific that we make national plans and utilize the same markers that the international agreements established. These agreements tell you what sectors, indicators, policy guidelines to focus on. For example if there is an area CEDAW misses, then Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women covers it. These agreements ensure that women must be involved in reconstruction, rehabilitation, conflict resolution, security and peace process and all other negotiations.
TNS: Have Pakistan’s international obligations helped in formulating effective national policies — and to what extent? Would you agree that the National Plan of Action or Gender Reform Action Plan or National Commission on the Status of Women are outcomes of its international commitments?
NSK: National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) has no coordination with the UN or any international agreement. Pakistan has had some five national commissions starting from 1954. Women’s movement was very strong in Pakistan from the start. One has to realize that the Women Conference of Women’ 75 materialised due to the voices from this part of the World, particularly Pakistan. We have been demanding separate seats for women since the 1950s, along with double vote for women seats and the general seats. We demanded these rights a long time before the UN did and played a role in drafting these UN agreements and resolutions. This is a commitment we initiated and committed to. NCSW is not linked with National Plan of Action or Gender Reform Action Plan (GRAP), which is a development programme on education with no policy influence.
National Plan of Action ‘98 is very comprehensive but has not been implemented to a large extent and needs to be updated. This is primarily because there is no political will to work, no allocated resources along with a mindset and system that perpetuates the inequality of women. The patriarchy of the system or state is not challenged, only the policy and paperwork increases.
TNS: What can be done to ensure the state fulfills its obligations? Will it meet the MDGs?
NSK: Gender equality is lacking not just in the health and education sector but also in public space; the women don’t get the kind of work they desire and retain the same patriarchal social roles. However, there are women and girls in villages and towns who have gained their right to education and work through their personal struggle. Infant mortality and maternal health are not my areas of specializsation but my understanding is that they have not improved much because the state does not have the outreach, the roads, manpower and infrastructure to improve the infant mortality and maternal health.
However, this is categorically the responsibility of the state, a human right and every citizen pays for it through direct and indirect taxes. Another dilemma in the achievement Millennium Development Goals is that now the international community and donors channel the money through NGOs and private sector that does not have the outreach which the state can have. Therefore it is like a drop in the ocean. Also, much of the money is lost in the institutional cost.
All the international commitments have an impact on women — be it the Universal Declaration on Human rights, International Labour Organisation, World Trade Organisation or an environmental agreement.
Some are women exclusive such as Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which we ratified in 1996 and now have to persistently follow and report our progress on it; the Platform for Action 1995; the agreement for Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Women, especially for Peace and Security. These Resolutions include 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1920.
Source: The News