By Aisha Sarwari
Divulging in to the state of affairs for women in Pakistan is an unsettling activity. Currently ranked at 143rd in the Gender Gap index among 144 countries, Pakistan is among the worst countries to live a life as a woman. Conditions here are worse than in Syria at 142 and slightly better than Yemen at 144. Both these countries are at the epicentre of a global war against terror. It is an unfortunate fact for which the government is culpable and faces regular scrutiny. As we approach this international women’s day, introspection is even more necessary.
International women’s day was commemorated in the memory of 129 working women in 1908 who lost their lives in a factory while protesting for flexible working hours; equal pay and the right to vote. In 2017 our women are still fighting for those rights. I feel the reason we have strayed is because we have not put in an onus where it needs to be — with the government. While I’ve often used this space to take down inaction, it is also important to acknowledge when governments do step up and make women’s rights a priority — albeit after a push from the conscientious civil society.
Despite the prevalence of gravest circumstances with regard to privileges and freedoms women enjoy in Pakistan, there is a strong commitment of the government, both at federal and provincial levels, to empower Pakistani women. The prioritisation of women-friendly legislation at all levels indicates the general will of both the public and the government to address women’s issues. At the least the compass is being fixed.
The best way to go about evaluating government action is to identify and characterise the policy tools employed to address the problem. Categorisation of these policy tools into key dimensions guides the progression of our current analysis. First, what is the nature of activity the government is currently engaged in to address the problem. Then, what is the structure of the delivery system being employed? Then, how centralised is this system? Lastly, does the program require detailed administrative action?
While there is a protest regarding the inactivity of the government to address women issues, particularly at the provincial level, the Government of Punjab has seemingly brought a renewed focus on the subject. They have delved right to a core issue and have come up with notable policy initiatives to empower women in the form of legal protections; outright grants; penalties for violators of women’s rights and provision of key services for their health, education and mobility.
With the creation of a dedicated Women Development Department (WDD) the Government, of Punjab has established a sound institutional mechanism to transform its policies towards gender mainstreaming and equality. A model that ought to be adopted by others.
To tackle the issue of much needed legal protection for women, various amendments and legislations have been signed into law in Punjab. These protections cover the contentious issue of women’s right to inheritance; the issue of harassment at the workplace; child marriages and crimes against women, which include but are not limited to acid burning.
Money disbursements to women contribute in improving the condition of economically disadvantaged women. With the establishment of the Punjab Working Women Endowment Fund Society there is a provision of financial assistance to working women, especially those residing in hostels. This economically strengthens the women who face the worst of orthodoxy, patriarchy and pseudo-religious fanaticism on a daily basis. These contributions though meagre in their value provide a much welcome economic cushion to these women who compete with men in a very hostile environment.
Via this department, the province has made contributions for the provision of services needed to ensure women empowerment. Take for instance the 16 working women hostels that were operationalised to address the concerns of outstation working women in major cities. To address factors that restrict women from active participation in the economic activities the initiative to provide day-care services for working mothers has been launched. With 61 operational day care centres at various public and private sector institutions there is a phenomenal change in the lives of working mothers in Punjab. We are told, 14 more day cares are in the pipeline. Punjab needs thrice that number and more, but it is, at least, a start.
To address violence and litigation issues the Government of the Punjab is establishing Violence against Women (VAW) Centres in Punjab to protect women from physical, economic, and psychological violence. Along with providing VAW centres a dedicated helpline has been established to support women accessing justice and litigation support. More data needs to come in to see if there truly is a follow through.
There is no denying the fact that a lot needs to be done for equality and empowerment of women in Punjab particularly in the areas of poverty alleviation, universal primary education reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, elimination of gender-based violence, mainstreaming of gender perspective in policies and programmes, enhancing training opportunities for women and girls and increasing the participation of women in leadership and decision-making.
It is critical that we garner public support behind government initiatives to improve women’s rights, not to merely trumpet them, but give real support because the development sector can only go so far. Also real on-ground change will come when the government itself realises its mandate towards women and works within its existing infrastructure and system to provide for them.