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What women want — Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq

Pakistan is estimated to have a rural population of 65 percent, and a national population comprising 50 percent women

For the first time ever, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to serve on Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, a 150 strong, previously all-male consultative body. The good news is that the king has decreed that women should always hold at least one-fifth of the 150 seats in the council, whose function is primarily to advise on new legislation. Saudi women are also expected to get the right to vote and to contest municipal elections by the year 2015.

This week, I was invited by the Aurat Foundation (AF) to participate and speak in a ‘Women’s Assembly’ in Sargodha. The AF has — as part of a consortium in collaboration with UK Aid — launched a project called ‘Awaz’, Voice and Accountability Programme. The event I was invited to targeted the women of Sargodha District, Punjab, to come forward and speak about what kind of Pakistan they wanted. I was overwhelmed and surprised by the number of women who attended the event — over a thousand women, not affiliated with any political party, belonging to ten union councils of the Sargodha District turned up to raise their voice. Most surprising were the women from Liliani. I was told that never have the women from this area been allowed to vote in the entire history of Pakistan; the men allegedly make a deal with the local contesting candidate, irrespective of political party, and do not allow women to exercise their right.

So, what did the women of Sargodha want? They wanted a Pakistan where there was no trafficking, no corruption, no drugs. They wanted adequate and equal health facilities, stating that even a rich man’s dog gets exemplary healthcare while the poor die on the pavements, waiting to be tended. A young girl from Liliani, nervous to the hilt, perspiring profusely, showed commendable courage in speaking before an audience of 1,200; she said that her parents were illiterate but managed to send her to school where she was able to study up to Class VIII. She wanted the village school to be at par with a ‘good’ school; access to electricity and gas; for women to be given equal remuneration as men, calling it unfair that a male tailor gets Rs 400 while a woman gets Rs100 for stitching the same suit. She wanted that the work a village woman does from five in the morning to 10 at night be recognised and she longed for a generation that is aware of its rights. Nearly all the women wanted an end to social disparity, the access to standardised education and health, a society free of evils, protection of life, end to sectarian violence, bridging the ever-growing divide between the people of Pakistan with respect to religion, and measures to boost their low self-esteem and confidence.

The Constitution of Pakistan already guarantees what the women wanted, but they still want it because they do not get it as they are supposed to. In recognition of its international and national commitments, the government formulated a National Plan for Action and a National Policy for Development and Empowerment of Women. These measures proposed to initiate gender sensitive programmes, establish national linkages through a multi-sector and multi-disciplinary approach, mainstream gender in all sectors at the national level and protect women’s rights and entitlements. After the 18th Amendment, the subject of ‘women’ devolved upon the provincial governments; however, since Pakistan is a signatory to various international conventions and the federal government has to submit periodical reports, it has to coordinate with the provinces.

Pakistan has fallen by three places on the Global Gender Gap Index: from 131 in 2011 to 134 in 2012. The challenges being faced by the women of Pakistan, as acknowledged by the government are: discriminatory laws including the issue of parallel judicial systems like jirgas and panchayats; the neglect of human security; religious extremism that includes patriarchal attitudes due to poor understanding of religion and potential violence; non-recognition of women’s work in rural areas; lack of access to economic, social and political resources; the attitudes of the state machinery and governance issues; lack of gender consciousness; gender gap in education and inadequate health and reproductive facilities.

The Punjab government, in realisation of the Women’s Empowerment Package announced on International Women’s Day last year, has made some changes. The quota for women in public sector employment has been raised from five percent to 15 percent; a relaxation of three years in the upper age limit for women job applicants has been given. A notification that mandates that at least one woman be a member of government selection and recruitment committees to eliminate bias against female candidates has been issued. For female contractual employees an additional chance of transfer is now in place. The maternity leave rules have been amended. A woman now has the right to apply to her immediate supervisor, the application is deemed to be accepted forthwith and it is entirely the woman’s discretion how she wants her leave. In all public sector offices the provincial secretaries have notified designated prayer areas and separate washrooms for women, and there is talk of establishing gender mainstreaming committees. An amount of Rs 14 billion has reportedly been allocated for pro-women development and a ‘daycare’ fund has been given to the Services and General Administration Department (S & GAD).

The Punjab government has taken a small step in the right direction, but no provision has been made to guarantee free and compulsory education to girls by enforcing attendance in schools. Laws that penalise parents for not sending their children to school are sadly missing; there is no standardised education system or government-run quality school buses in rural areas, which could facilitate girls to get to their schools and colleges. There is no protection against domestic violence; no law has yet materialised.

Pakistan is estimated to have a rural population of 65 percent, and a national population comprising 50 percent women. With the food and energy crises deepening day by day, the resources of a family are diverted to male members in order to keep them healthy for employment, leaving less food for women. There is no recognition for the work women do in rural areas and unequal pay in urban ones. Lack of awareness, education and mobility makes it difficult for women to access a wider employment and trade market; compounding matters further are endemic corruption, natural disasters and human trafficking. There is a global focus on gender and governance, a dire need for increased women’s political participation, the right to vote, the right to contest, the right to speak and the right to be represented in policy decisions that translate into actual physical benefits. We are miles ahead of Saudi Arabia but there are still thousands more milestones to reach. To have their rights in reality is what women want.

Daily Times