IS it a day of celebration for women in Pakistan? You would ask. What would a woman celebrate in this country, with its entrenched patriarchy, its killing fields, its one brand of men who kill women for ‘honour’ and another brand who bomb girls’ schools?
From up north to down south and from east to west, you read and watch stories in the media that trouble your soul and make you wonder if women in this country would ever live a life of dignity, respect and freedom. ‘Not in your life time’, you shake your head in gloom.
Let’s take a pause and a closer look. The life of women has indeed changed in your own lifetime; your life is better than your mother’s. Or is it not? If you belong to a privileged class you might say that the sense of freedom your mother recollects, such as the kind she experienced in public spaces in the 1950s and the 60s in this country, you certainly have not known. Or some similar observations may make you feel that conditions were better in this country for women back then. But ask any young woman in any god-forsaken village, or in any bursting-at-the-seams city, whether her life is better than her mother’s and you will find her nodding in agreement. And she will wax eloquent about how she can do things her mother never imagined or will share dreams that her mother never dared to dream.
You may argue that this scenario contradicts what our researchers, development analysts, human rights activists and statisticians tell us about the status of women. But differing perspectives, both macro and micro, do not question or undermine the veracity of their findings as truth has many layers and is multi-dimensional. And its layers and dimensions can appear contradictory. The truth is that the life of our women is changing for the better. And the truth is: this change is slow, not dramatic or revolutionary.
The truth is also the fact that there is a backlash of increasing women’s empowerment linked mainly to the peculiar patriarchy of the region and partly to the backlash of the US-led ‘war on terror’ in Pakistan. The truth is: women’s empowerment is tied to the social and political fabric of society and deeply linked to the empowerment of all strata of society, particularly the poor and the vulnerable.
My continuing association with the NGO sector, since the mid 1990s, has allowed me many glimpses into the lives of countless women, both individually and collectively, in various habitats and diverse social milieu. Whether these young women are football stitchers in Sialkot, factory workers in Multan and Faisalabad, cotton-pickers in lower Sindh, primary school teachers in Dadu, cattle raisers in Thar, lady health visitors in Shahdadpur, housewives in Mingora, councillors in Lahore, or textile workers in Karachi, threads of individual resistance, collective struggle and hope are interwoven in their life patterns. Young married women have two foremost goals; a good education for their children and decent earnings for the household whereas young girls nurture dreams of continuing their education and marrying a man of their own choice.
At a macro level the gains women have made in accessing opportunities are modest and limited to a few areas. Female literacy has risen from 36.9 per cent in 2001-02 to 40.6 per cent in 2005-06. The net enrolment rate for primary schooling has increased from 38 per cent to 48 per cent during this period.
Life expectancy of females at birth is now slightly better at 63.2 per cent, than that of males which is 62.8 per cent and the sex ratio has declined – both positive indicators – from 108 in 1998 to 105 in 2006-07. Female labour force participation has increased from 15.9 per cent in 2003-04 to 18.9 in 2005-06. Political participation of women has also improved with 33 per cent seats reserved in local councils, 21 per cent in the parliament and 17 per cent seats in the Senate.
Viewed from a global perspective, these gains are minuscule compared to the giant strides women have taken elsewhere. Under Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) for women’s economic and political participation, decision-making and power over economic resources, Pakistan is placed at a dismal 82nd position out of 93 countries. Women who have fewer opportunities to access basic rights, such as education, health and skills, are unable to benefit from a productive labour market and from technological advancements and those who are counted as employed are engaged in low skill, low wage economic activities. The majority of our female labour force – 59.2 per cent – works as unpaid or poorly paid family helpers. Also, violence against women is growing with the widening divide between the rich and the poor and with the rising conflict between the forces of tradition and modernity.
Despite constraints and a disabling environment, women have continued their struggles for equality and dignity on many fronts – legislative, social, political – at both personal and collective levels. Although it is not a concerted, unified process that could be termed as a broad-based, visible social movement, the last four decades have witnessed the expansion of women’s struggles in various forms.
The 1970s witnessed the birth of a few organisations of educated urban women concerned with women’s deteriorating status in society. In the early 1980s the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) emerged as a pressure group to challenge Gen Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation campaign. The 1990s spawned hundreds of women’s grassroots groups and organisations in rural areas as a response to escalating poverty and gender inequality.
Facilitated by national support NGOs, these community-based organisations focused on women’s access to education, health and micro-credit. In the current decade, marked by many global events after 9/11, women in Pakistan face three challenges – neo-liberal economic policies, growing militarisation and rising fundamentalism. Undermining of public economic control and accountability, erosion of labour rights and the growing exclusion of the marginalised and the poor have impacted our women the most. Pakistan’s alignment with the US-led ‘war on terror’ has accelerated fundamentalist backlash and intensified localised insurgencies.
The state-versus-‘terrorists’ wars have led to the loss of lives and property of innocent civilians, caused economic hardships and displaced large numbers of families. In armed conflicts, beside emotional traumas and losses, the burden of economic survival and care of the family falls largely on women. Today, there exist a significant number of active women’s groups, resource centres and organisations engaged in mobilising and sensitising grassroots women as well as policy makers on gender issues and women’s rights.
In recent struggles for control over resources – for land rights by Anjuman Mazaren Punjab, and for control over water resources by Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum – women have been in the forefront. How these diffused struggles and sporadic bursts of mobilisation are transformed into a sustained and unifying movement and translated into policy measures remains to be seen.
One of the keys lies in grassroots activists, academicians, parliamentarians and policy makers – not just feminists but both men and women – joining forces on a single platform. Ideally, political parties should have taken up this role. But unfortunately none of the political parties, in government or in opposition, have taken up the task of ensuring a dignified and equal status in society to women with resolute will and sincerity. Let us hope that the new government will chart out a workable strategy to achieve this dream.