Rights without rights
The UN theme this year for Women’s International Day was “Equal rights, equal opportunities: progress for all.” One wonders how to commemorate the day around the theme when rights and opportunities are simply disappearing from the lives of everyone; men, women and children. What progress is there to be claimed for all? What seems to be in progress is poverty, hunger, disease, unemployment, inflation, suicide bombings, humiliation and violation of human rights by the state agencies and institutions. Are we then asking for equality in police torture recently shown on television channels? Equality in sharing the brutality of the factory-owner who kidnapped, chained and tortured a laborer in Gujranwala? Do we want to share the humiliation of bus hostess in Sialkot? Do we want to have equality in the fate of Shazia, the young domestic servant who was tortured to death?
The new social, economic and political realities here are creating new vulnerabilities for women who are at the receiving end, suffering the most because of their already disadvantaged social positioning in the society. The war on terror has created a new category of the vulnerable; the widows, orphaned children, and families abandoned by the Taliban who left their homes. Against this backdrop of rising violence, militancy, crumbling economy, and the deteriorating law and order situation, the issue of gender equality is clearly been put on the back-burner now.
The Constitution of Pakistan is full of contradictions regarding equality of rights for men and women. While the Article 25 of the Constitution stipulates that “there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone”, there are several laws in the statute that negate equal rights to women such as the Hudood Ordinance, the Law of Evidence, Qisas and Diyat, the Citizenship Rights, etc. When equality of rights is not even established in the constitution of the country, how can we expect the same in practice?
The PPP government, despite its pro-women credentials, has taken few steps to repeal discriminatory legislations against women. Contrary to the expectations of women’s rights groups, the Parliamentary Committee for Constitutional Reform has refrained from proposing the removal of the discriminatory laws. However, the government deserves appreciation for the two very important bills passed by parliament — the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill and the Protection Against Acid Crimes, and Rehabilitation of and Compensation For Victims of Acid Crimes Bill.
The bill regarding protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace will not only provide a safe working environment to female workers, it will also legitimise and strengthen women’s presence in the public arena. Another important bill, on domestic violence, that was passed by parliament could not get through the Senate and was referred back to the parliamentary committee.
The resistance in passing the bill in the Senate illustrated the patriarchal mindset of the members present in our legislative bodies that refuse to criminalise violence on women inflicted by their family members. While successive governments have ignored the need to put a system in place that would systematically gather information on violence against women to address the issue effectively, the data gathered by NGOs shows an alarming increase in such violence. A recent study conducted by an NGO reported a 13 per cent increase in anti-woman violence . The media is also playing a vital role in highlighting such issues through reporting cases of violation of women’s rights. And yet our legislators are not interested in providing a legal cover to women against such crimes.
Equality of opportunities and progress for all also seems irrelevant in the context rising unemployment. Industrial units are closing down, agriculture is suffering due to non-availability of electricity and water, etc. Opportunities to find work and to live with dignity are shrinking for the masses. Despite the popularity of discourses regarding gender equality at the state and societal level, and despite the higher level of gender consciousness, a lot of gains made by women over the past years are under threat because of the overall deterioration in the political and economic state of the country. People expect their governments to guarantee rights by creating opportunities for growth and progress for all. These expectations are particularly high when governments are democratically elected. That is why the people of Pakistan always fought and sacrificed their lives for the supremacy of democracy in the country. Democracy was not offered to the nation on a platter. In fact, the present democratic dispensation is the result of the longest resistance movement in the political history of the country where people fought for rule of law and against military dictatorship in the hope that democracy will ensure equality of rights, opportunities and progress. However, today our democratic government is failing us on all counts.
The hold of the establishment over decision making in financial and political matters of the country may be cited as one of the reasons behind the failure of successive civil governments in fulfilling people’s expectations. The only way forward for the people of Pakistan in general and women in particular is to mobilise and organise themselves and force the establishment and the government of the day through their collective voice and will to re-orient national priorities in favour of the people.
The writer is acting director of the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University. Email: farzana@comsats. net.pk
Source: The News