A NUMBER of civil society organisations converged on Islamabad over the last 10 days to draw attention to Pakistani women’s diverse concerns and offered the state authorities a bagful of tasks that they cannot possibly ignore.
The need for clear legislation and public policy to eliminate dowry-related abuses against women was highlighted at a discussion organised by a network of civil society organisations — Fight Against Dowry Advocacy Network, backed by the National Commission for Human Rights and several NGOs. The subject is much less heard of than before but the large-scale violence (including fatalities), unhappiness and the denial of basic rights caused by the dowry tradition must be effectively addressed.
The urgency of protecting women against acid attacks, punishing the culprits and providing relief and compensation to victims, was the theme of a consultation organised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The state authorities now have many ideas they can benefit from provided they have time to address the most horrible crime that often condemns the victims to a nominal and joyless existence.
The most significant event was the conference on Rural Women Day, on the theme ‘democracy, development and peace’, organised by the Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy (Poda). This was the eighth annual event of its kind held pursuant to the UN General Assembly’s 2007 resolution on the “improvement of the situation of women in rural areas”, which declared Oct 15 of each year as the International Day of Rural Women. At the 2009 Poda conference the then Pakistani prime minister had declared Oct 15 as the national day for rural women in Pakistan but it seems the government will have to do a lot of hard work before it can catch up with rural women activists who are marching along with remarkable zeal and grit.
The women activists condemned the evils of patriarchy and the callousness of the ‘wadera’.
This year’s conference enjoyed the support of several national-level organisations, including the National Commission on the Status of Women, Rural Support Programmes Network, Lok Virsa and some international non-governmental organisations. They were joined by a few city-based groups and a number of grass-roots, rural-based civil society organisations. The stars of the conference were the 1,600 rural women activists from all over Pakistan, including such remote areas as Awaran, Tharparkar, Cholistan and Hunza.
The organisers justified the focus on rural women with the help of statistics that should be borne in mind by all friends of the disadvantaged: contrary to the national data, in rural Pakistan (61.4pc of the country’s population) women (50.8pc) outnumber men (49.2pc); the overall literacy rate is 49pc; of the total number of literate people, women’s share is only 36pc; the rural female labour force participation is stated to be officially only 16.8pc of the total labour force. In fact, while 79.4pc of the rural women are engaged in agriculture — in other words, more women are working in agriculture than men.
The various aspects of women’s plight were discussed at policy strategy sessions on ‘home-based female workers’ struggle to survive with honour’, ‘women’s rights in local bodies election’, ‘mobilising strategic support for ending violence against women and girls’, ‘government services for women farmers’ and ‘use of radio as a tool to create awareness about ending gender-based violence’.
The discussions were led by members of the political elite, foreign experts and subject specialists. The ministers and parliamentarians were generous dispensers of optimism, but in view of the government’s notoriety for indifference to rural women’s concerns, one wondered whether these representatives had much say in the chambers of power or policymaking councils of political parties. Far more forthright were the women activists themselves. They were candid in condemning the evils of patriarchy, the oppression of conservative religious leaders, the callousness of the wadera and his allies in the police, and, above all, the insensitivity of political authority.
Refreshingly enough, the narrative of the weather-beaten, rural spokespersons was not merely an endless dirge. Many of them spoke with confidence about what they had been doing to break the barriers put up by vested interests. The impression of awakening, though still on a modest scale, among the rural women, and the ring of resoluteness in their tone, strengthened one’s belief in the possibility of change to a much greater extent than the puerile rhetoric of politicians — both those in power and those hankering for it.
The conference resolution favoured a low-key reformist agenda in contrast with the proto-revolutionary fervour shown by quite a few activists. The demands included recognition of women farmers, facilities for informal sector workers, 33pc seats for women in elected bodies at all levels, increased women’s seats in local bodies and direct elections, headcount and improved working conditions for home-based workers, implementation of pro-women laws, protection of minority women, curbs on all forms of violence and rehabilitation of victims, improved food security, special quota for persons with disabilities in legislatures and in services, and women’s active role in promoting peace.
Considering the present-day hazards of voicing radical thoughts, to say nothing of aspirations for socio-economic change, the desire of the conference participants to stay within the parameters fixed by an increasingly unfriendly establishment is understandable. But anyone who is aware of the central crises in rural society cannot see any progress without its liberation from the wadera stranglehold and a thorough overhaul of agriculture.
Rural women will not be able to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, dependence, exploitation and helplessness unless they win their right to land ownership within the framework of broad-based land reforms, their right to inherit parental property, equality in marital relationship and family matters, and their right to basic freedoms of movement, expression and association. An emphasis on what is doable must not obscure the ideal of rural women’s empowerment nor the need for their partnership with urban women and the support of whatever is left of like-minded men.
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2015
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