The inside story of Pakistan's participation in the 53rd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women
By Ayra Inderyas
Under the theme of 'Equal Sharing of Responsibilities between Women and Men, Including Care Giving in the Context of HIV/AIDS', 92 member countries, UN agencies and NGOs gathered in New York for a two-week session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) that ended on March 13. Responding to the theme, Sindh Minister for Information Shazia Marri read a statement on March 4, highlighting the actions taken by the Pakistani government to uphold gender equality and women empowerment in the country. In particular, she mentioned the Benazir Income Support Programme under which Rs1,000 per month will be given to women-headed poor households every alternate month and the Gender Reform Action Programme focussing on gender mainstreaming.
Marri's statement categorically emphasised that women had been given increased role in every sphere of life and they were now serving in every field – a situation many women's rights activists and groups dream of, but which may have nothing to with reality. In fact, Pakistani women face several challenges and obstacles to achieving their due place in society.
Listing the government's achievements, Marri's statement mentioned that there were currently 17 women senators and 76 women MNAs in Pakistan. She especially drew attention towards the recent formation of the Women Parliamentarian Caucus (WPC). However, commenting on the WPC in one of the parallel events, Tahira S Khan, a professor of Political science in New York, said it was a usual elite club of women, comprising wives or sisters of feudal lords, who have no commitment to gender sensitisation and who lack independent thinking. "The recent signing of a peace accord in Malakand Division with zero women representation and the lack of women at the decision-making level are evident of their status in Pakistan," she added.
Shazia Marri's statement also mentioned the establishment of the Gender Crime Cell for prevention of women harassment at workplace. Knowing the insurmountable barriers that women, especially those of lower socio-economic strata, face in seeking judicial redress, one wonders if the Gender Crime Cell will make much difference. Marri, in her statement, considered Pakistan's ratification of the Saarc Convention on Trafficking in Women as a step towards promoting gender equality. If that matters, Pakistan has already signed and ratified a number of international treaties: the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women; International Covenant of Economic, Cultural and Social Rights; and International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to name just a few.
However, to translate international commitments into domestic law, concrete mechanisms are needed. Women's contribution to the agricultural sector is far from being recognised and remunerated equally in Pakistan, while Marri noted in her statement that tracts of cultivable lands have been allotted to women farmers to help them earn their livelihoods. Speaking on HIV/AIDS and equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including care giving, Marri said the Pakistani government's commitment to fighting the disease is reflected in the fact that it finances 80 percent of the related expenses.
However, the situation on the ground tells an altogether different story. According to a 2008 UNAIDS report, 85,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. Moreover, it has been confirmed by the National Aids Control Programme (NACP) of the Ministry of Health in a report that the HIV epidemic is concentrated among injecting drug users, and their infection rate increased to 21 percent in 2008 from 10.8 percent in 2005.
To contain this epidemic, Pakistan launched the NACP in 1988. Its objectives included prevention of HIV transmission, establishment of surveillance mechanisms and research on the disease. Moreover, the National Aids Policy was drawn in 2003 and the National Aids Strategy in 2007. The latter focusses especially on women, children and young adults. However, access to health services for the most affected population – including injecting drug users, male and female sex workers, etc – is still low and does not even meet the minimum standards. A 2007 World Bank report warned that Pakistan faced the risk of rapid increase in the incidence of HIV if immediate steps were not taken.
The increasing HIV pandemic calls for concerted and serious efforts to address all related issues, such as stigma and discrimination; dearth of information; lack of awareness about safe sex; drug abuse; poor access to health care facilities, especially in rural and semi-rural settings; spread of quackery; and unethical medical practices playing havoc with the lives of innocent people.
Women are most vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, According to one estimate, women make up 60 percent of the population living with HIV/AIDS. They also have the least access to reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention measures. In February, this scribe questioned a group of 78 women about HIV/AIDS during a community seminar at a slum dwelling on the outskirts of Lahore. Of those women, only two knew about HIV/AIDS, which speaks volumes of the lack of awareness about HIV prevention among poor women.
In Pakistan, strong stigma and taboos are attached with discussing safe sexual practices. As a result, women or girls involved in commercial sex industry end up getting sexually-transmitted diseases and stay at a high risk of catching HIV/AIDS. A misconception that HIV is only transmitted through sex workers is also widely prevalent. The real causes of HIV/AIDS are hardly taken into consideration. Awareness on the use of contraceptives is rare among women. Besides this, unequal power relations in families do not allow women to have any say in their reproductive decision-making.
In another parallel event on March 5, Salman Ahmad of Junoon was seen among the panelists advocating increased awareness about HIV/AIDS. "Our job is to open up discussion on issues related to HIV/AIDS through art and culture. The rest of the responsibility lies with politicians, religious leaders and the media, who should break the silence and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS," Salman said when asked how celebrities can bring about a change and support care givers. Will these celebrity initiatives ever reach out to those who are infected with HIV/AIDS and are in need of special care, including financial support? Or will celebrities make fortunes in the world of glamour on the pretext of raising awareness about HIV/AIDS?
Women bore the burden of care giving, but it also stopped them from adopting professions of their choice, Shazia Marri admitted. She further stated that women are paid less for their work as compared with men, their work is not legally recognised, they are often deprived of the benefits of labour legislation and they remain confined to informal sectors. One hopes that women parliamentarians will take up these issues seriously and devise concrete strategies to introduce the concept of gender budgeting.
The 2008 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan at 126th position. In terms of women labour force participation, the country was ranked 121st of 128 countries.
The Pakistani government had introduced many plans and policies – such as the National Employment Policy, National Plan of Action, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and Gender Reform Action Plan – to introduce gender equality in the country, Pakistan's Acting Permanent Representative to the UN Farukh Amil said during the 47th session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development on Feb 5, 2009, in New York. In order to witness the practical realisation of aforesaid policies and plan, concerned government quarters need to devise a comprehensive mechanism with transparent monitoring and accountability
Following a long debate on March 13, most member states at the 53rd UNCSW were able to evolve consensus. This decision was hailed by the majority of member states, including Pakistan. However, a few member states disagreed on the pretext that the consensus fell short of their expectations. In a nutshell, the consensus included recommendations for governments, civil society and intergovernmental organisations for implementation at international, national, regional and global levels. It called for implementing the Beijing Platform for Action 1995, and reducing predicaments to ensure women participation in all spheres of public and private life.
Regarding care giving, the UNCSW demanded speeding up efforts to achieve global access to prevention programmes, treatment, care and support by 2010. In addition, the UNCSW stressed governments to include value and cost of unpaid work in polices and budgets, guarantee women and men access to maternity and paternity leave, and increase access to public infrastructure and transport. The commission also adopted a draft resolution urging governments to create conducive environment for women empowerment, and reinforce women economic independence, inheritance and property rights.
It further called for preventing violence against women and girls in relation to HIV/AIDS; ensuring women's sustained access to health care services; strengthening health care faculties, including sexual and reproductive rights; and addressing situations where girls are forced to drop out from school due to care giving burden. The consensus also called government and international donor community to ensure sufficient funding for local HIV/AIDS programmes.