LAHORE: For a patriarchal society that reduces women’s worth to their marital status, unmarried daughters are a burdensome source of perpetual unease, not only for the family raising them but also for the state obliged to protect them.
Launched in 2008 by the federal government, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) was a mixed attempt to alleviate poverty while upholding the banner of women’s empowerment by awarding quarterly cash transfers to women without male family members living below the poverty line.
While divorced and widowed low-income women were included in the category of ever married and hence were eligible beneficiaries for the social safety net program, single low-income women without male family members were purposefully excluded from the program, forcing many female breadwinners to work extra hours to support their families.
Nasreen Bibi, a domestic worker from Mughalpura, has been the sole breadwinner of her house ever since her parents passed away a couple of years ago, leaving her behind to provide and care for her younger siblings. “Since I am unmarried, I am not eligible to receive the quarterly cash transfers by BISP,” lamented Nasreen, who works tirelessly at multiple houses and feels that the extra income could cushion her family’s monthly finances, partially relieving her of her exhausting workload.
Sympathizing with Nasreen’s plight, Farhat Jabeen, a beneficiary of BISP from the Cantt area, confirmed that countless deserving single women in her locality, despite having no male family members for security, were denied cash transfers by BISP. “Even though I am benefiting from the program, I know of many single women who are heading their households and are in dire need of financial assistance but are not included by BISP in its eligibility criteria purely because they are maidens,” affirmed Jabeen, who called out the government for its discriminatory policy.
According to Zulfikar Sheikh, Programme Director for BISP, the welfare program had set out to offer monetary assistance in the form of quarterly cash transfers to ever-married women only, and never-married women were never part of the program since the focus of the initiative was to alleviate household poverty by providing direct cash transfers to homemakers.
Opposing the discriminatory policy are women’s rights activists who argue that inequity in poverty alleviation programs can act as a trigger for propelling unanticipated social ills like beggary and prostitution.
“When unmarried low-income women are not educated enough, are the only breadwinners in their family, and are also not offered financial assistance by the state, they have no option but to turn to objectionable means of earning a livelihood,” opined Salman Abid, head of a women’s rights organization.
Abid’s concerns are supported by sociological studies, which show a strong correlation between rising household poverty and women’s engagement in social vices like prostitution.
“Therefore, the program must expand to accommodate single women and the unmarried daughters of deceased BISP beneficiaries,” added Abid.
It is worth mentioning that currently, approximately 9 million households are being covered by 452 centers of BISP, which issues cash transfers worth Rs 8,500 and Rs 9,000 four times per year to all ever-married women and does not transfer the entitled amount to a beneficiary’s unmarried daughter upon her death.
In this regard, Zulfikar Sheikh, BISP’s Programme Director of General Media Pakistan, said, “This program aims to empower low-income women as envisioned by Benazir Bhutto. Since the program is linked with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), it only registers women who have a living parent and are ever married. The system is checked annually through an online survey, and the assistance is given only to married, divorced, or widowed women.”
Source: The Express Tribune