IT seems a strange fact of life in Pakistan that the greater the number of institutions that exist to address a social evil, the more devastating the situation becomes. Be they human rights, women’s empowerment and health and education issues, one can’t help noticing the proliferation of organisations working on women’s problems. The number of reports being produced on them is phenomenal but nothing seems to come out of them and nothing changes on the ground.
The latest to join this galaxy of stars is the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW) which was notified in September with Nuzhat Shireen as its chairperson. Under the PPP, the Sindh government has traditionally been the first in framing many laws pertaining to women after devolution in 2010 when the 18th Amendment required the provinces to re-enact many of the laws that had been adopted by the National Assembly and the Senate. But in the matter of status of women’s commission, Punjab and KP took the lead. Sindh is the third province to set up such a body.
To introduce itself to the public the SCSW was launched two weeks ago with a seminar on violence against women. Shireen is a senior activist who gained much experience through her association with WAF. I wish her well though I am not sure how much impact she will manage to make if she persists with the same strategy that has conventionally been adopted by most advocacy groups in respect of women.
Are laws enough to change the status of Pakistan’s women?
It is what one would term a fire-fighting approach that requires the staff of the organisation to spring into action when a crisis erupts. A woman might have been raped, murdered or abducted and the activists come forward to offer much-valued help and support to the victim. These bodies have been very active and effective in another way — namely advocacy.
The Women’s Action Forum has played a major role in bringing the women’s issue to the forefront of the political agenda in Pakistan. No political party can now venture to fight an election without its manifesto spelling out its pledges on women’s empowerment.
It would not be wrong to say that the National Commission on the Status of Women was created by Gen Musharraf in 2001 to neutralise WAF. Yet the NCSW under strong feminist chairpersons, like retired justice Majida Razvi and Anis Haroon, became instrumental in getting pro-women laws enacted and also getting women legislators organised as a women’s caucus.
The question to be posed now is whether laws are enough to change the status of women in Pakistan. Laws are important to provide a legal framework to check many social evils and to give women power to fend for themselves. But Pakistan’s problem is that generally laws are not implemented. That calls for another campaign to create public awareness about the laws.
What, however, needs to be understood is that neither laws nor public awareness as it is traditionally created by our NGOs lead to a change in people’s mindset. The change is not in sufficiently large numbers to create the critical mass which is required to build the momentum that makes change self-perpetuating. It is essential in the first place that mass advocacy is on a one-to-one basis and carried out face to face. That is what retired justice Shaiq Osmani also suggested in his remarks at the SCSW seminar.
Mass advocacy does not ensure the delivery of the services that are needed to ensure behavioural changes in women. If women are exhorted to educate their girls but there are no schools, how can they be expected to do that? Similarly, healthcare and opportunities for employment should also be available if an impact is to be made. Otherwise, it creates frustration. Development NGOs are more suited to do that but they are not structured for advocacy work and lobbying especially vis-à-vis policymakers and opinion leaders.
The recent dharna by the TLYRA in Islamabad and the total surrender by the establishment to the protesters whose methods were totally unlawful is ample demonstration of how the women’s movement in Pakistan has failed to achieve its basic aims. On the contrary, the religious forces which could earlier garner barely five per cent of the votes have made great headway. Their success can be attributed partly to the fact that many of them mobilise their resources to provide services to the people.
The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek are well known for that, as are many of the other religious parties. When they can’t provide people bounties on earth, they promise them paradise in the afterlife. WAF can do neither! It should not aspire for the latter but if it were to join hands with secular development NGOs to improve living conditions of women while providing these organisations a link with the higher quarters, women would find it more credible.
Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2017