When the sun rises on the 2018 International Women’s Day, Pakistan would do well to bow her head in shame. Politicians, populists, policymakers, development consultants and the financial sectors have all collectively and individually erased women in the country – diminished them to the edges. Globally it may take 200 years to achieve true gender parity. For Pakistan, as things stand, this may not be enough time. Not at this rate. Not with these social norms and certainly not with this lack of priority on women’s rights.
If the recent UN report on gender equality for it’s Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 is to be believed, Pakistan is one of the four worst countries where there are concerning states of neglect and abuse of women. Almost 5 million Pakistani women 18-45, stand deprived in terms of forced child marriages, lack of access to education, no access to healthcare and no employment opportunities. Some regions in Sindh province are worse than the worst war-ravaged remote regions of Nigeria.
In total, 74 percent of women in Pakistan have an average of fewer than 6 years of education. These are unemployable levels of education for a staggering number of women, mostly across the rural divide. Similarly, in rural areas, 70% of women don’t have access to health care or emergency medical care. Due to a significantly lower social status, women are 11% more food insecure than men in the country. Across several households, nutrition is distributed in a way that puts the girl child at the lowest rung. Then the man comes first and then the boy child follows. Also, housework is so undistributed that women have worn to the bone in around-the-clock caregiving.
Sometimes it seems like the young girl in Pakistan is marred right at birth, first by low nutrition and lack of access to health and reproductive rights then by the absurdly low expectations from them to deliver anything but more children, that too preferably boys.
They are no economic contribution expectations from them, mostly because of social stigmas that bar girls and women from entering public space. As a result, women are likely to wither away and become inhibited and small. Those women who dare to establish some control over their lives are chastised and punished in extreme ways – 1,000 and more honor killing average cases a year are reported by the Human Rights Watch. Many more go unreported, hidden underneath the rugs of patriarchy.
The inheritance laws in Pakistan are so archaic. Women only inherit a negligible fraction of land from their families and most are pressurized by their family to give it up for their brothers and or are married off within families to keep the wealth consolidated among men. In every case, they are distanced from financial independence and the empowerment that comes with it.
The laws in Pakistan are designed to punish the victims, often women who are subjugated through rape or even workplace harassment. Domestic violence is prevalent among 90% of women according to Thomas Reuters Foundation. Law enforcement treats this as a personal family issue, often prompting women to return to their batterer.
Global feminist movements like #MeToo have sprouted local movements in Pakistan that cry out against misogyny. The fashion industry has come up with the #MaiBhi campaign asking celebrities to come forward and name and shame their abusers so the shame is not internalized but actually put onto the backs of the perpetrators. Many celebrity women have called out the sexual abuse they faced as children. For the first time in the country, women are taking charge of the narrative rather than silencing what is a crime against them and the state – a crime for which justice should be sought.
Sadly when women claim justice first her right to speak is questioned, then her claim to being violated is discredited and eventually she is drained of resources to go for a lifelong fight.
Fundamentally the way abuse is rationalized in societies like Pakistan is through the systematic diminishing of women’s voices in public space – in the parliament, in the professional space and in law, technology, and science.
With the advent of the Internet and social media, we hope more women can have a voice. This International women’s day when the agenda is to #PushforProgress most Pakistani women are not allowed to have a digital presence to begin with. Those who claw their way onto the web – 40% of them face blatant online harassment – eventually find themselves frightened into the four corners of their homes again.
The onus to #PushforProgress is not really on the women in Pakistan. They have a long way to go, even when the fiercest women in the world are Pakistanis. The onus to make way is on men. They need to recede. Give away some of their power after checking the privilege this country and its governance has granted them for about seven decades. True economic prosperity will only come by handing the reigns to the women – to come up with an equitable way to share power and status. There is no progress otherwise.