Mar 15, 2010

Other half

If Mumbai can have separate trains for ladies and Cairo can have women-exclusive taxis, why not Lahore and Karachi or some of our smaller cities?

By Ammara Ahmad

Pakistan celebrates the International Women’s Day with passion. Yet, most women in Pakistan live deplorable lives. Whatever ‘improvement’ has occurred in their lot, has been very insignificant and has been carried out at a snail’s pace. Let us just take a look at some of the problems confronting the vast majority of poor women in our country.

The labour rooms of Pakistan’s major government hospitals are terrifying. Most are over-crowded and dirty. If the beds are full, women are made to stand or share beds. Hills of garbage are littered all over the wards, along with crowds of noisy relatives and cranky staff. The women who can actually avail of these wonderful ‘facilities’ are the lucky few as professional healthcare is rarely available to the bulk of the rural women. If one compares these healthcare standards to those in (say) the US or even China, the entire situation becomes very depressing. This comparison is deemed futile by our ‘planning babus’, on the basis that the US is a developed country, unlike Pakistan. But even then, our various governments have had over sixty years to ensure that women don’t die giving birth but with what results?

UNICEF reports state that the under-5 mortality rate here has dropped from 130 in 1990 to 89 in 2008, per 1000 live births. But according to a 2007 report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child’s (SPARC), Pakistan had the highest infant and mother mortality rate in South Asia. This meant that we were behind India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and maybe even Afghanistan. One really doesn’t see much improvement since then, and one wonders where the UNICEF gets its figures from? According to most international indicators, Pakistan women and their children have been suffering and continue to suffer, the same as before.

Even everyday needs like good transportation facilities are absent for our women. Cities like Lahore and Karachi have plenty of middle class women car drivers. However, they are still very rare in smaller cities like Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sukkur, Hyderabad and so on. The poorer you are the worst is your transportation problem. In over-crowded buses and vans, women are harassed and jostled. Seats supposedly ‘reserved’ for women are forcibly taken over by men. College and school girls can seldom go out alone. If Mumbai can have separate ladies trains and Cairo can have women exclusive taxis, why not Lahore and Karachi or some of our smaller cities?

A few days back, sitting in the Race Course Park, Lahore became an ordeal for some of my friends. Within minutes, they were accosted and harassed by hordes of frustrated young men, and, ultimately, forced out of the park. Expecting much government support against public place harassment is unrealistic. Even the PPP, Pakistan’s most liberal mainstream party has not been able to pass much significant pro-women legislation, except for the recent, very unsatisfactory Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2009. Indeed, it has not even been able to implement previous acts with any real force or conviction. The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2009 has, to all intents, simply collapsed. In 2008 alone, the Aurat Foundation reported that there were 7,733 reported cases of violence against women in the country, with perhaps five times that number going unreported. This was first time the Parliament had devised legal and practical measures to curtail home abuse but the Council of Islamic Ideology believed anti-violence laws might increase the divorce rates. Although even the most developed countries cannot completely wipe out domestic violence, yet the state fulfills its duty of formulating anti-violence laws, implementing them firmly and providing institutional support to victims.

The present, ongoing "war on terror" is also taking a big toll on our women. The areas bearing the brunt of the fighting are already poor; and to their existing misery, new dimensions have been now added. With the mass displacement of population from these tribal and frontier areas, women have had to pay a very heavy price. Many of them have previously never stepped out of their homes, kept strictly in ‘purdah’; they have little or no idea how to tackle the harsh realities of life in their camps. Their whole world has been turned topsy-turvy, they and their families are living hand to mouth and bearing up stoically with unbearable hardships. Almost 6000 of the women in various camps were due to give birth last June. WHO declared that the medicines became short within the first week of the displacement. Lady health workers were reluctant to approach the areas due to security threats. Due to "purdah", these women couldn’t go to male doctors. To top it all, the UN report on the women declared that 3 out of 5 of the pregnant women were anemic, with high risk of abortions, and other natal complications, and were in dire need of blood transfusions, surgery, medicines, vitamins and other dietary supplements etc. The report also stated that a number of children were delivered in tents, which was like "giving birth in an oven". The threats of epidemics in the summer months and the harshness of exposed winters are other factors they are contending with. Many of these women also lacked male family members or escorts and were consequently struggling for food and basic necessities as well as protection in strange new localities.

Why should all this be relevant over here? One of the chief feminist arguments against war is that wars are started, planned, financed and largely fought by men; yet take a disproportionate toll of women and children. The plight of the displaced women as stated above is typical of women trapped in violent conflicts; women who are poor, displaced, with missing husbands and with children to feed. The terror, crimes and humiliation the internally displaced Pakistani women have suffered and are suffering is still largely undocumented and frightening to contemplate. A lot of coverage is given to the war, daily, and the number of militants killed etc — but how many channels at home or abroad have given comprehensive coverage to the women in the camps?

On Women’s Day, an advertisement sponsored by the Ministry of Youth, Government of Pakistan appeared in the press. It stated: "We mothers, We sisters, We daughters, The honor of the nation is from us." How do we ‘honor’ our women — mothers, sisters, daughters, today, in the face of the above, select examples? This is worth contemplating at this time, instead of all the hypocrisy and cant that usually prevails. We women are not mere relatives to our male counterparts but also individuals, humans, citizens. It is high time we received what are our essential rights.

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