Social and political spaces of expression for women have increasingly been squeezed in Pakistan over the years. The concerted social media vilification campaigns run against outspoken women by our misogynists, in the millions, are one of the indicators of our societal downfall.
The facts of our downfall stare at us with an alarming caution that Pakistan has become one of the worst places for women to live in. Let us dwell on some of these alarming facts to make sense of the appalling state of affairs vis-a-vis women’s rights in Pakistan.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report (2017), Pakistan ranks 136th on the attainment of education index, 140th on health and survival and 95th on the political empowerment of women, out of the 144 countries assessed in the report. Pakistan scored 0.546 overall on a scale wherein a score of 1.0 represents parity and 0 represents imparity. The country’s female/male population ratio was recorded at 1.06. The index denotes the country’s widening gender gap over the decade, as it ranked 112 out of 115 in the year 2006. In the 2017 index, Pakistan only beats Yemen, whereas, interestingly, war-torn Syria is ahead of Pakistan.
The fifth objective of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to end all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. This includes eliminating harmful practices, ensuring women’s full participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making, and adopting and strengthening policies and legislation to promote gender equality. There are also a number of international conventions providing some overarching policy principles for the promulgation of context-specific provisions in the national constitution to ensure the protection and promotion of women’s rights.
In addition to SDGs, Pakistan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other international commitments to uphold, protect and promote the rights of women. Pakistan’s constitution has defined protection against gender-based violence as one of the fundamental rights in Article 25(2). Article 26(2) of the constitution provides for affirmative action or positive discrimination to ensure that women have equal access to opportunities that they are otherwise denied in a male-dominated society.
Despite the fact that Pakistan is signatory to most of the international conventions on women’s rights and has a constitution that provides legal protection to women against violence, we have failed to build a gender-sensitive society. Our downfall as a society is becoming imminent with each passing day as we hear about the tragic news of women being lynched for speaking truth to power. Our religious clerics, scholars of secular pursuits, politicos, journalists, human rights activists, the legal fraternity as well as the educated classes have all failed to create a counter-narrative against male chauvinism that holds sway on the media and public discourse today. We suffer from collective amnesia when it comes to acting upon constitutional covenants and our international commitments on women’s rights.
Women’s empowerment is not only about upholding the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution and the international conventions that we have ratified. It is also about sustainable economic development and prosperity of this country, the progress of which is marred by the exclusion of 49 percent of its population from participating in its development. How can a country prosper if half of its population has been left out from participating in nation-building processes? Equitable development is the precursor for sustainable change in the lives of the most vulnerable segment of our society, ie women.
Women in Pakistan face dual exploitation. One is their structural exclusion from the mainstream institutions of representation and policymaking, and the other is the behavioural and attitudinal animosity of a patriarchal society. In a nutshell, the practice and discourse of development, and representation and empowerment in Pakistan, is shaped by a feudal mindset, which then adds to the popular notion of women being subservient to their male partners.
The perspective that has influenced the discourse on women’s empowerment in our contemporary theory of change stems from the feminist view of the equality of the sexes. This means appreciating, articulating and ensuring equal rights for women in all spheres of life. To me, this must be the outcome of institutional and policy reforms to enforce constitutional and statutory provisions. Having said that, we cannot ascertain the equality of the sexes only through changes in the mindsets and without attempting to dislodge the power structures of subjugation. The unreconstructed postcolonial institutional structures are built around the masculinity of power and subjugate the weaker one. We need a major overhaul to challenge the power structures of subjugation through radical institutional reforms.
These radical institutional reforms worked well in Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil and many other developing countries in which the status of women has significantly improved as compared with Pakistan. I hope that the new elected government will undertake some drastic policy reforms to build well-governed and inclusive institutions of representation. In our case, this means unleashing the transformative potential of 50 percent of the country’s population, who will play a critical role in the progress and prosperity of Pakistan.
The central principle that governed the agenda of reforms in these countries was the political will of the leadership to formulate inclusive development programmes and invest in creating and sustaining women’s institutions. Run by women, these institutions proved to be a bulwark against physical and structural violence. The genesis of women’s own institutions in Bangladesh goes back to the 1970s. These institutions received undisrupted government support for decades, which came to fruition in the form of improved gender equity in the country. In Pakistan, one such institution for women’s empowerment was set up in 1982 with the establishment of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Gilgit-Baltistan. But the government’s support for this institution dwindled over the years.
Today, we have some success stories that have the potential to create a radical change through locally informed institutional responses to the multiple vulnerabilities of women. The most apt example of this is the Sindh government-funded Union Council Based Poverty Reduction Programme (UCBPRP) and its successor the EU-funded Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) Programme – being implemented by the Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) under the technical supervision of the Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN).
SUCCESS exclusively organises rural women in their own grassroots institutions and helps them climb out of poverty through skill-development, income diversification interventions and linking them up with government services and supplies. The programme envisages to impact two million poor women in eight districts across the province of Sindh. The women who formed their own local organisations included those who neither had a voice nor economic wherewithal to assert their position in a male-dominant and conservative society.
The process of mobilising women as the primary actors of change has created a pragmatic and sustainable model that must be replicated in order to get a larger impact, and must have consistent governmental support across the country. Interestingly, these rural women have representation in the district development committees along with all the district line departments chaired by the deputy commissioner, with the aim of reshaping the local development agenda in favour of the poor and women.
This process of engagement has put women at the centre of the household economy and decision-making. SUCCESS is a good prospect for formulating evidence-based women’s empowerment policies, both to meet our development targets, and fulfil our commitment to SDGs and other international conventions.