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Towards change for women

I.A Rehman

THE release of four research studies on issues of gender justice and equity by the outgoing NCSW or National Commission on the Status of Women (to be replaced by an autonomous body under a recently adopted statute) is a good occasion to assess the implementation of women development ideas.

A detailed judgment on these reports must await a fuller study, especially by specialists, but a layperson will find, even after a cursory look at the summaries of the studies, that the issues chosen are relevant in both contemporary and historical contexts.
Besides, the findings not only show what is wrong with the various efforts for women’s emancipation and empowerment but also suggest what needs to be done.

The study titled Appraisal of the Capacities of Women Development Departments (WDDs) at the Provincial Level deals with the critical issue of the provincial governments’ capacity to foster women development. It finds that the rhetoric of women/gender development has not enabled the WDDs to move away from the old welfare model because the agenda for change is not fully backed by political circles and the bureaucracy.

The WDDs have no mandate for gender policy, lack constitutional and legal status, and are organisationally weak and without planning and support structures. A number of steps have been suggested to fill the gaps in organisation and policy planning and ensure greater interdepartmental coordination and to secure the support of civil society organisations in the field.

The second study is on one of the greatest anxieties of women victims of gender-based violence i.e. their need for a secure shelter. The prime objective of the study, Shelter/Crisis Centres and Gender Crime Cells is to examine the structure, viability and effectiveness of the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women Centres (SBBWCs). These centres suffer from institutional and infrastructural flaws as well as deficiencies in counselling skills and capacity for the rehabilitation of women victims of violence.

The Punjab government has declined to accept the SBBWC project as it is quite happy (surprisingly!) with the Darul Amans in all its districts. Since the “unambiguous conclusion of this study is that the SBBWCs provide a crucial and invaluable service for women victims of gender-based violence”, the recommendations for the administrative strengthening of the centres, training of their personnel and extension of the necessary financial and technical support deserve priority attention.

The third study examines police reporting and investigation mechanisms, political interference and matters related to safety/security and protection against victims’ harassment. The report presents a long list of flaws/gaps in the police system, including confusion about the operative part of the Police Order 2002 and the havoc caused by the amendments to it, non-operation of the public safety commissions in Balochistan and Punjab, shortage of investigation officers and reliance on untrained staff.

The most significant finding is that the police, the prosecutors, the lawyers and judges all admitted to having discriminatory attitudes towards women complainants. The list of remedial steps, as was to be expected, is pretty long.

Finally, there is the study on disaster management institutions and the need to develop a gender-responsive preparedness plan.

In this area, the complete sway of male-oriented attitudes is fully evident. Women are doubly at risk in disaster situations. Only a little has been done to mainstream gender into the relevant policies and programmes.

The NCSW is one of the few relatively young state institutions that have performed well. Several factors have contributed to this success story. Although its full-time chairpersons came from different backgrounds — Majida Rizvi was a judge, Arifa Syeda Zehra has experience of teaching and administration and Anis Haroon has a solid reputation as a front-ranker in the women’s movement for social and political rights — they complemented each other’s work. They also shared a capacity for getting their way through a maze created by political leaders’ insensitivity and bureaucracy’s obstructionism.

They overcame their lack of authority and resources, and stuck to their mandate and generated funds from outside the public exchequer for their research and advocacy programmes. (The latest series of reports was made possible by a grant from the Aurat Foundation out of its Gender Equity Project funds provided by USAID).

Perhaps the greatest factor contributing to the NCSW’s accomplishments has been its close and lively interaction with like-minded civil society organisations. The momentum for women’s uplift generated by the women’s movement has made a tremendous contribution not only to the triumphs of the NCSW but also to the women parliamentarians’ legislative initiatives that everybody is now praising.

In this, there is a salutary lesson for both the rulers and the ruled: no state-sponsored project of people’s social advancement can yield maximum good unless it incorporates in its design and implementation mechanism the wishes and opinions of civil society, especially prospective beneficiaries, and offers them possibilities of owning the enterprise.

Taken together with the NCSW’s earlier reports, including the studies on the Qisas and Diyat law, women’s right to inheritance, women and local bodies, and extremism, and studies on implementation of women-related laws (such as the Protection of Women Act of 2006), the present studies present a fairly long agenda for the implementation agencies.

That in this process the role of the new national commission will be crucial is obvious. Much will depend upon its composition and its ability to maintain a healthy and mutually reinforcing relationship with civil society organisations and the admirable activists that the women’s movement has thrown up.

It is a universally accepted adage that half of an institution’s success is guaranteed if its headship is assigned to the right person and she/he is given a good team to work with. Unfortunately, Pakistan governments have been known to violate this principle more often than not.

The present government in particular needs to dispel the impression that it allows key positions to lie vacant if no favourite is keen to grab it (the office of the federal ombudsman has been lying vacant for about 18 months) or that it is guided by a desire to create sinecures for favourites or that it has a penchant for making appointments that are controversial or amount to showing the red rag to one sacred bull or another (the cases of secretaries to ministries).

Thus, more than usual importance attaches to the need for the earliest possible reconstitution of the NCSW. In fact this should have been thought of much before the completion of the terms of the chairperson/members. Unless there are compelling reasons against it the idea that the fullest possible benefit may be derived from the experience of the team that has secured the commission’s autonomy has a great deal of good sense behind it.