It was back in February 2014 when the Punjab Commission on Status of Women Act 2013 came into force with the efforts of the Punjab government. Fauzia Viqar, a human rights activist, was appointed chairperson of the Punjab Commission on Status of Women (PCSW), a recommendatory body formed to ensure rights of women, the following month.
Fauzia was sitting on her desk in a fairly unfurnished, understaffed office as we discussed her journey, work and related topics including the PCSW’s progress and, most importantly, the hardships she faces, her determination to complete the task to help empower women in Punjab against all odds.
Starting her career working with the government, she left it after a couple of years and went into teaching. She taught International Politics and History of Pakistan in different schools for a few years, after which she moved to Canada where she worked on human rights with the government there primarily focusing on ‘anti-racism’ and ‘anti-sexism’ issues.
For Fauzia, this particular experience highlighted various problems that women face around the world and motivated her to work for women’s rights. “It was while dealing with issues of colour, which is a bigger problem in the West than gender, that I realised that women had to face intersecting oppression: it was their colour, then it was their gender and along with that, they also had to face the issue of marital status.”
She explained that single women generally faced more discrimination than others and a greater level of abuse and harassment. For example, single mothers faced discrimination in western societies even while renting a building, just like the women in Pakistan.
Later, Fauzia joined Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre as their advocacy and communications director and got a chance to interact with the grassroots community as well as work with the policy and decision-makers.
At PCSW, she as its chairperson was given the mandate of setting up this institution on March 8, the International Women’s Day. Besides being busy in establishing the commission and hiring staff and getting other logistics in place, she has been working on laws and related processes which discriminate against women and issues like violence.
Fauzia elaborated that since gravity of the issue of physical violence, their staggering numbers and the increasing severity of the physical abuse cases was so high, other forms of abuse like ‘emotional abuse’ or ‘economic abuse’ against women are ignored. Honour killings and domestic violence in particular remain the PCSW’s key concerns.
Similarly, she is looking into ‘family laws’ under which she is working to raise the age of marriage for girls from 16 years to 18 years and enable their education at least to secondary level. With these measures in place, she hopes to ensure that the girls are allowed to grow both mentally and physically before they get married.
Another area Fauzia is working on and is also close to her heart is the Home Based Workers (HBW). She described the working conditions for women labourers part of the informal sector as “extremely exploitative”. Despite the hardships they face, a lack of freedom of movement and limited choices outside home, they are not recognised as ‘workers’, earn extremely low salaries, exploited by middlemen and work in inhuman conditions that are appallingly bad for health.
Recently, a policy draft and a law draft which aim to give rights to HBWs have been passed by the Department of Labour and are in the final stages of acceptance. Fauzia is actively advocating for adoption of the law and pressurising the department to pass and later promulgate the law.
As part of Fauzia’s mandate of monitoring jails and other custodian institutions, she is working closely with the Social Welfare Department to look into the policies adopted by ‘Darul Amaan’ and supporting the 12 women’s crisis centres that have been recently adopted by the Punjab government.
Other important issues that are among the priorities of the PCSW are action against ‘acid crimes’ and steps to bring in the much-needed ‘economic empowerment’ and related ‘skill building’ for women. She also endorsed ‘Punjab Skills Development Fund’ for their great work and offering
skills training programmes for helping the disadvantaged women. She said she was determined to utilise whatever avenues she had to push for development in this sector.
Analysing the PCSW’s efforts, she said the progress had been ‘good ‘ however she hopes for a ‘fast’ progress in the future. She explained how grave issues like terrorism and lately the political instability in the country had taken away attention from issues related to women.
“It is going to take time to help people see that women’s issues are not standalone issues which can be addressed by bringing in women related policies here or there, it has to be mainstreamed in every aspect of our work; it is about applying that gender lens.”
One of the most convenient facilities that the PCSW has acquired to address complaints and help provide justice to women is a ‘helpline’ for women. This helpline was introduced by the Women Development Department initially and is in the process of being adopted by the PCSW.
Being a government recommendatory body, it will allow them to directly contact the respective government departments to attend to the complaints, support women in monitoring their rights and, most importantly, observe trends to carry out proper trend analysis that will later help feed into policy recommendations which is also a key mandate of the PCSW.
Asked about what it is like working in a society that still does not give weight to women’s issues as they deserve, Fauzia said it’s getting increasingly more difficult with time to function as there is “rising intolerance” in society. People tend to take the law in their hands and so ‘rights’ especially women’s rights have become a more difficult area to work in as it’s seen as a “western agenda”.
Overall, she felt that women are doing very well in some ways yet in other ways we are going back. “It is literally like going one step forward and two steps back; it gives you that feeling at times,” she explained and later added light-heartedly “but I try to focus on the one step forward, not the two steps back!”.
Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2014