Pakistani Women’s Stories need to be part of policy

Over a thousand women are killed for honor in Pakistan every year. At the Women of the World Summit in New York this month, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker from Pakistan spoke about honor in Pakistani society. She said her films on the culture of honor have helped start a discussion about how women are valued in society. For the first time, honor killing is being condemned at the highest level: “The prime minister of the country watched my film and said ‘there is no honor in honor killing.’”

As often the case with change, personalized stories, like those in Obaid’s films make all the difference in creating an understanding of threat that women face.

In Sindh’s Jacobabad district on March 18 there were three horrific cases of honor killing. A woman called Ashram Khatoon was gunned down by her husband when he suspected that she was cheating on him. She was only 22. Another woman, Seher, also 22, was stabbed to death by her husband, again, on the suspicion she was romantically involved with another man. Neighbors say he overhead Seher speaking to her alleged lover on the phone and was enraged. The third woman was a mere child – a 16-year-old girl who was shot by her own father because he felt she shamed his honor.

It is by telling these stories that we can convey the urgency of how desperate the country is for lasting solutions to protect women from ghastly traditions. Despite the rhetoric of taking the women along, most governments in Pakistan and their international partners have failed to turn around the status of women.

Pakistan is among the top ten recipients of aid from both the US and UK and women are supposed to get a big part of that pie. Still, there are too many Ashram Khatoons and Sehers. The international donor ecosystem is pouring funds for women in Pakistan continuously. United States disbursed USD 782 million to Pakistan in 2014/2015 out of which USD 174 million was allocated to gender equity focused aid. The UK gave Pakistan USD 221 million in the same period, out of which USD 132 was gender equity focused.

When designing USAID Pakistan programs, their rules stipulate that it is mandatory that women make up 33% of the beneficiaries. For DFID funding in the country, this target figure is even higher. The scale and priority placed on women is evident, the results not so much.

All of this put together, we are talking of millions of dollars that are allocated specifically to elevate the women of Pakistan. Reality, however is lackluster. Scratch lackluster. It is an abomination. Even though there is money allocated, it is not spent on deserving women, or even women.

World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries worldwide. Of course, the Prime Minister needs to do more than state the obvious but one also wonders what blocks all the aid from translating into results?

Violence is one of the key inhibitors of women’s progress in the country (90% face violence in Pakistan according to the Thomas Reuters Foundation) and it is on a steady rise. Now it is taking up modern expressions on the Internet in the form of cyber harassment for women who dare to have an online identity. It seems like the more Pakistan advances, the wider the echo chamber and amplification of misogyny. There is a severe push back both from the right wing.

This is dire – the money that does go into the cross cutting theme of gender gets spilled and wasted by going to the wrong people. Often aid money bypasses the mandatory inclusion of women beneficiaries. Aid officials use a gender justification to come up with excuses on why trainings, grants or capacity building programming will almost always go to men.

They say culture, religion, value systems do not allow for women to be part of the development programing in Pakistan. These types of excuses are the bane of why already allocated money for women ends up where it shouldn’t – to men and to women who are securely part of the elite.

Violence and the potential threat of violence gets aid to only those who are above it – those who need it least.

The government says the right thing but doesn’t do much either.

This is where this money should end up: the 15-35 year-old women. 50 million or more and more of this bracket of women and girls need safeguards, support and props to help them crawl out of abject poverty, patriarchy and financial and educational exclusion. This is where we need to focus our policy and resources. This is a high-value group that is both talented and switched on to changing their destiny.

Women are often asked to learn needlework instead of computer graphics or innovative work. Somehow Pakistanis and the people working in development think of women as an after-thought. Perhaps that they take up more aid man-hours than women deserve. This is dangerous.

Women in Pakistan are moving in a diametrically opposite direction from women elsewhere – widening the women empowerment gap instead of narrowing it with tools like tech and modern education.

There is a global urgency on setting up a feminist foreign policy and a need to build sustainability – particularly with SDG goal on gender equity. Women internationally remain the pivot, here, however we don’t even want to know who they are.

Honor killing cases are growing in Pakistan. With more awareness, more cases are coming to light and these numbers seem to rise every time the earth revolves around the sun. Mere condemnation can only save so many lives. We need to cater to the ones who somehow plod along despite the barbed wires of tradition around them. We must enable them to be more mobile, self-reliant, have more access to heath and be violence-free. These are big dreams for a country that seems to build lots of roads but does not bridge that crucial gap between opportunities for a girl child versus a boy child.

If only the problem could be solved with more money. It can’t. Several architects of small and medium sized grant programs say that when women at grassroots are offered money to empower themselves with it, they reject it. The caged-bird syndrome is a long game and needs invested policymaking that is both holistic and data-centered. Women’s financing programs need to be coupled up with training programs to build internal capacity.

Women reject help for good reason. They face more violence as they tread towards empowerment and social uplift. They disturb the power lopsidedness. Men like their privilege. Giving it up is no fun for them, at all. Taking back power is not so easy in Pakistan because men get away with violating a woman almost always. Despite a changes in the legal system where women now have more recourse, but due to the ingrained culture there is a hesitation to press charges against men to whom women eventually have to return for support.

If one could wish for two things here: an end to lazy aid architects and a realization in Pakistan’s government that women’s exclusion makes no political, economic or social sense. Women must not continue to be footnotes anymore.

To help the women of Pakistan you have to do the scary thing first and get involved. Getting your hands dirty in understanding intersectionality, race, class and other handicaps that women battle on more than one level.

It all begins with letting women tell their own stories. Preferably while they are still alive.


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