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When ‘awareness-raising’ isn’t enough

The needs of women have changed at different levels to different degrees. There was a time in the mid-seventies, when it seemed that Pakistani women activists would be going beyond social welfare. But it turned out to be a very different world from what was expected.

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What more – fortunate women want to do for less-privileged women, and what the latter want instead, are often two different things. The givers may want the takers to learn about their rights, and ‘stand on their own feet’ and ‘fight their own battles’. But the takers may prefer a decent job – or skill training that would ensure it – that would better feed them and improve their standard of living.

Hasn’t advocacy and awareness of their rights made a difference in their lives? Answers were varied.

“I thought it would. At least we were told it would. But after knowing about one’s rights and not being able to do anything about it, can be more painful because you realize how helpless you are and always will be. Better not to know. Just blame kismet. That’s what it is.”

“If a woman needs to take legal action against her husband or other person in a joint household and she has nowhere to go, she is helpless. She just has to accept her fate even if it means being beaten up all the time. She can try and flee to Edhi’s but she won’t if she has small children or daughters – unless she is physically thrown out.”

“It all depends on whether the man is basically a decent person or not. Some men are. But they don’t change easily. A habitually violent man never changes. You think feudals do?”

“Of course some women get help – the ones you read about in the papers or see on TV. But they are a tiny minority. I heard in some countries they have safe-homes for women and children in trouble. Why don’t we have the same here?”

“If he is an addict or drunk and doesn’t support her, she might have the courage to leave him. But unless she can find safe and affordable shelter for herself and her children, which doesn’t exist, she can’t leave his house. Knowing our rights or having legal aid is of no use then.”

“I wonder about the religious political parties. They always talk about what our duties are. They never talk about their duties towards women and what should be done for them. Is religion only about men’s rights?”

“Many men don’t contribute when women earn. Sometimes useless men are deliberately married off to earning women so that they can maintain the husband – who remains ‘head of the family’. Many men keep most of their salaries for themselves and won’t cover all household costs, knowing that the woman will put in her earnings or just manage with less. They are just hard, mean and thoughtless.”

“Men say their pride doesn’t allow their women to work. But they are very willing to have women do home-based work with very low, unfair wages. They are hypocrites. They just don’t want others to see that women pay the bills too. But everyone knows anyway. “

A low-income but educated senior citizen concurred. “When I was young, I also believed education would make a difference. But first, what kind of an education do we get? Even if it is good quality, it tells you nothing about people’s rights or government’s responsibilities, men’s duties – not just women’s – or the laws for our everyday life, or how to ensure we get justice when we need it, not after we are ruined. Aren’t all these supposed to be a part of education when they affect every moment of our lives? If government can’t provide that much, what purpose do they serve? Are our elected politicians aware or educated in the same sense? I don’t think so. It has been the same since partition. The rich and powerful still exploit the poor and weak. Feudals still oppress the haris. Men still undermine and beat our women – even educated men. Men learn and copy the behaviour of male leaders in politics or government or in the community. It is all about patronage, male dominations and class. Education is also about changing men’s mentality. Has it changed? Women’s advocacy should be targeted more at men than just the women. Face it: they have to bring about the initial change. Right now they make all the decisions.”

Some NGO workers concede that unless government steps in, in a big way as they have in some other countries, with sweeping reforms and mechanisms for firm implementation, and more ‘instant justice’ with an iron hand, the efforts of NGOs would always be limited. The only other solution was revolution – which no one seemed to have a stomach for.

A few felt it was enough to address middle-class women, and a ripple effect would result. Others were doubtful, pointing out it hasn’t happened in decades despite trying. Economically, matters were worse, and needs had become more basic as the government paid less and less attention to the masses.

So what do we do in the meantime for unprivileged women? Almost all the answers revolved around economics – survival and earnings.

“When a woman earns, and she can improve her earnings, the man respects her more, even if he takes some of her money. They are more comfortable. He is then more likely to respect her rights also.”

“What does a mother want? She wants to work to care for her family, clothe and send her children to school. She wants to keep her children not just fed, but well-fed and healthy. I want to be able to afford fruit and meat or chicken at least once a week, and an occasional treat like ice-cream. They should not have to beg for it, because when you don’t have the money, you want to kill yourself.”

“My employer pays us in part cash and kind. We get one-fourth of our salaries in the form of dry rations. At first I did not appreciate it. Then I discovered that prices were much higher in the market. But he always gave the same fixed amount of rations even when the prices kept rising. So it was as if our salaries were increased.”

The others wished they could all have such a thoughtful employer. If all did the same, wayward husbands wouldn’t be able to grab that much equivalent in cash from them, they opined.

One voice spoke for most. “If one earns enough, one can free oneself from a cruel or irresponsible husband. One can buy one’s freedom. Not otherwise.”

“All men don’t contribute. Many keep most of their salaries for themselves and won’t cover all household costs. If it weren’t for women’s work, most families wouldn’t be fully fed, although they earn less. Shouldn’t then women’s salaries be enough to pay for all household needs – food, electricity, gas, rent, transport, school fees, doctor’s bills, clothes – and still have some savings left?”

She didn’t know it, but she was talking about minimum fair wages.

Hope evaporates

There was a time in the mid-seventies, worldwide – amidst international people’s conferences, and sparks of hope for a better world and a better future for women – it seemed that Pakistani women would be going beyond social welfare. But it turned out to be a very different world from what was expected. Things haven’t gone the way that activists had hoped they would.

The needs of women have changed at different levels to different degrees. Have women’s NGOs adjusted accordingly? That’s a matter of opinion. Nevertheless dependence continues to grow heavily on philanthropic organizations and NGOs. And while women’s NGOs have doggedly continued doing their bit, the gap between what is required and what is fulfilled keeps getting inexorably wider.

In the seventies, food security was not an issue; it had not become a buzzword. In the eighties came the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanding our government slash social spending and use that money to pay off foreign debt, even though such loans were never mandated by the citizens. Did they have to obey? No, they didn’t, but they didn’t want to change the status quo either and lose their cushy, corrupt power.

Poor women – and men – needed to understand how the government and IMF were responsible, and why, for example, why standards of government hospitals and schools kept falling. Why they had to pay for all medicines and tests even if the treatment was free. Why water supply was unequal and unfit for use. And these were just some of the many bad effects. But there were no strong enough or sustained protests. Not then, not later.

Then came the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the nineties and so-called ‘free trade’ on supposedly equal terms between highly unequal countries. Pakistan was already export-oriented. Pakistan made fortunes, but not the people at large. The profits went to individual manufacturers, growers and exporters. Nothing wrong with exporting surplus you don’t need, but a country is supposed to leave enough of basics like food and raw materials for home consumption. After WTO, they couldn’t afford much. Anything that could be exported or smuggled, was exported and smuggled. If anything was left, people could buy it. If they didn’t have the money to buy with, which most didn’t, they did without.

In all their campaigns, opposition political parties never explained how ignorant or bad economic policies deprived the masses and ruined the country. Nor discussed whether these policies were even democratic. Their only focus was corruption and power politics. Some failed to recognise that certain policies and agreements such as IMF and WTO were corrupt in themselves, never meant to end, so that people would remain exploited and impoverished for perpetuity. Others allowed their silence to be bought and corrupted themselves.

But why did most NGOs remain silent, or not fight hard enough? Tragically, it was often the same answer as politicians gave – that the people were unlettered and not capable of understanding such matters as the World Bank and WTO and other such. It was an unfortunate assumption, as the experiences of other countries, especially Latin America, does not bear it out. Shorn of superfluous detail, the deceitful essentials – which justify unjust terms and inequality – are understandable to most (provided someone cares to explain in their terms).

Pakistan’s Labour Party often tried. But their backs were broken by military and civilian governments alike, and a largely fearful if not indifferent media, kept sitting on the fence. Even they seem to believe that only the highly-educated are capable of fixing economic problems. Even though, both ‘planners’ and politicians failed to use what was needed most – common sense.

A young mother summed it up. “Do you know what it feels like not to be able to buy your child even the smallest thing? What it is like to know she doesn’t have a future, nothing to hope for, nothing to be even happy about? But they don’t see the connection between that and having decent jobs. Why do we need governments and politicians anyway? They are no different from feudals.”

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