For the women

Updated 15 Apr 2020


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT was supposed to be a very big deal. In March, the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN was supposed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the iconic Beijing Declaration. That declaration, signed by over 100 countries including Pakistan in 1995, imagined a world where women and girls would be able to exercise all their rights, could live lives free of violence and the threat of violence, have the freedom to make choices about their own lives and bodies, and have access to education and employment.

It was a tall order, then and now, but it was also another time. Such was the enthusiasm and ebullience of the moment that changes were instituted, many countries changed discriminatory laws, and others began to invest in areas like maternal health. The way a country treated its women became a matter of international discussion and reputation, and rights organisations eagerly monitored whether governments were living up to their promises, moving ahead on the path towards gender equality.

The long awaited CSW-Beijing 25 conference would never take place. Days before the meeting was due to convene, Covid-19 struck New York City. The gleaming UN building, where women from all over the world were planning to gather, was like all the other gleaming buildings in the city: it had been shut down. The city was in lockdown as the virus was not in control. The meeting, like all other meetings, was cancelled, plans that had taken years to finesse and finalise were, like so much else in the world, suddenly and completely abandoned.

Some would say that, even before the pandemic, the summit was dead before it ever lived.

While no one could have foreseen a global pandemic, there had been signs that did not bode well for the meeting. Led by Algeria, more conservative countries refused to agree to the language in portions of the joint declaration. The touchy bit had to do, expectedly, with sexual and reproductive rights that the Algeria contingent (including many other Muslim countries) refused to include.

One of their ‘surprise’ allies was none other than the US, which in keeping with the Trump administration’s ‘family first’ agenda did not feel like they could agree to anything that could be seen as supportive of the right to abortion. All of it is a pity, for the large umbrella of sexual and reproductive rights did not refer to anything in particular but rather the right of any woman (just like any man) to have full control over her body. Regardless, there was no agreement and the joint statement is full of the kind of watery language that suggests a lot but commits to nothing at all. Some would say that, even before the pandemic, the summit was dead before it ever lived.

Although the meeting did not take place at the last minute, preparations (including individual country submissions to the UN Commission on the Status of Women) had already been made. Pakistan’s submission, the official estimation of our progress over the past 25 years, makes for interesting reading. Reading the report, I was surprised, for instance, to learn that everything from the ‘Shamsi Tawanai Scheme’ for solar energy pumps to the ‘Agri-Financing Scheme for Cut Flowers’ were all included under the section entitled ‘Economic Empowerment Achievements’.

Sadder was the fact that, even with the inclusion of these general programmes that have little to nothing to do with women’s empowerment, the sum total of five years progress takes up only a page and a half.

Towards eliminating violence against women, one of the goals of the original Beijing Declaration, Pakistan established the National Institute of Human Rights, which despite a nearly Rs60 million budget allocated in 2016 has nevertheless not produced any particular measures towards actually realising this goal. Most Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani women, would also be surprised to discover that an endowment fund of Rs100m was allocated for ‘Free Legal Aid for Poor Victims’ of rights violations, which was to be disbursed through district and sessions judges (and yet no report exists of these disbursements).

Then there was the Rs2.7 billion proposed for “women empowerment including their socioeconomic empowerment” under the federal government’s 11th Five-Year Plan (2013-18), and the ‘Treaty Implementation Cells’ “established at the national as well as provincial levels”.

It is aggravating business, reading these details. If the money has indeed been disbursed, ordinary Pakistani women who are its purported beneficiaries have never heard of and have little idea of how to avail the resources supposedly set aside for them. Not only is there a lack of political will to tackle the challenges of violence against women or socioeconomic under-development, there is also the age-old problem of lack of accountability and transparency.

The sum total is bad news for women’s rights. At the global level, the squabbling over the language of the joint statement, the new coalition of countries that want to limit even the language (let alone the actual implementation) of sexual and reproductive rights, all represent the opposite of the collaborative and progressive spirit in which the original Beijing Declaration was made.

What is true in tone and tenor of the global is true also of the local. Despite all the expenditures listed in the report (and there are many, I have only listed a few) there seems to be little political will to ensure that women are actually receiving the money.

With the international framework for women’s rights flailing, it is perhaps no surprise that no one has bothered to publicise the report in Pakistan (it is available online via the UN website). If more Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani women, were to look at its contents, they would (like me) be quite bewildered to learn how good things look on paper and the great deal of effort the government is making on their behalf.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2020