Towards women’s empowerment – by Farahnaz Ispahani
The touchstone of the morality of a nation or a society is the way it treats its women. Women are a vital segment of any society. Without their unhindered participation in all spheres of national life, no nation can march towards its cherished goals of economic, political and moral progress or aspire to earn a respectable place in the comity of nations. That perhaps is the yardstick by which the difference between the developed and the developing nations is assessed.
Viewed in the backdrop of this, the recent signing of the ‘Protection of Women from Harassment at Workplace Bill 2009’ by President Zardari has taken Pakistan one notch up on the moral plank in addition to all other accompanying benefits. The president speaking on the occasion rightly summed up the vision of the PPP government about the status of women in Pakistan in these words: “We have to create a Pakistan where the coming generations, my daughters, can be proud of the fact that they live as equals. We will make sure that those who wish to harm the ideology of the Quaid-i-Azam, which was for equality for men and women, shall not succeed.”
In a society which still continues to be haunted by the demon of obscurantism, the new legislation marks the beginning of a pragmatic and forward looking approach closer to the emerging social realities. With the growing number of women joining or aspiring to join the workforce in different spheres of national life, the problem of harassment of women in the workplace had also assumed alarming proportions. According to a survey conducted by an NGO, 80 per cent of working women in Pakistan at one time or another have faced this ordeal.
The issue was continuously being highlighted by women rights groups, NGOs working for improving the status of women, women legislators and members of the civil society. The PPP government which has an abiding commitment to the true emancipation of women could not remain oblivious to this snow-balling social phenomenon which infringed upon the dignity, self-respect and self-esteem of women and which also violated their human rights and acted as a deterrent towards their entering the workforce as men’s equals. Coming on the heels of the announcement by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for the setting up of the office of Ombudsman for Women and an amendment in Section 509 A of the Pakistan Penal Code that defines sexual harassment, the new legislation lays a solid foundation for ensuring a harassment-free working environment for women.
This new legislative measure provides an excellent mechanism to deal with the issue. It puts the onus on the management of the organisations employing women to adopt a code of conduct and also to constitute a three-member inquiry committee, duly notified, to deal with harassment complaints. Their failure to comply with the legislation entails punitive action and financial penalties. The victims of sexual harassment can also seek redress of their complaints from the Ombudsman for Women, if they are not satisfied with the internal proceedings of the concerned organisation.
The legislation is a significant initiative on many counts. Firstly, it will encourage the already working women — who have been enduring the humiliation of sexual harassment in the absence of appropriate legal support — to spurn and resist unwanted approaches by their workmates or bosses and do their jobs with unruffled confidence. Secondly, it will also help mitigate the biggest hurdle in the way of women who were reluctant to join the workforce due to this phenomenon. Thirdly, it will greatly help in changing the mindset of sexual harassers of women. The legislation could act as a catalyst in nudging the process of a social and economic change. Women constitute nearly 51 per cent of our population and their uninhibited participation in economic activities can also give impetus to the efforts to eliminate poverty
The signing of the bill by the president, in the presence of the UN representatives, women rights activists, women parliamentarians, members of the civil society, federal and state ministers and other stakeholders indicates the uniqueness of this piece of legislation and the importance that the PPP government attaches to the issues related to the emancipation of Pakistani women. It also was an appropriate occasion to show to the world how we treat our women. It is encouraging to note that most of the NGOs and human rights organisations whose representatives attended the ceremony did acknowledge the commitment of the government in this regard and hailed the legislation as a historic move by the PPP government in regard to the protection of the rights of women. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that in the history of Pakistan, no other piece of legislation has provided protection to the workingwomen from sexual harassment.
The PPP government has also been working on another very important and sensitive issue, that of domestic violence. For years the issue of domestic violence has been a source of public concern, but no previous governments dared to touch it. The adoption of The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act 2008 in line with the National Policy of Empowerment of Women is yet another significant achievement of the present PPP government which supports a zero tolerance policy for violence against women. The courage shown by the government in bringing this nagging problem out of the private domain provides irrefutable testimony to an unswerving commitment of the government to deal with issues related to women. It also reinforces its credentials as an emancipator of the women.
Other steps that the PPP government has taken for the empowerment and redemption of equal status for women in society, in line with the vision of Shaheed Muhtarma Benazir Bhutto, include granting of complete administrative and financial autonomy to the National Commission on Status of Women and fixation of a 10 per cent quota for women in government jobs in addition to the initiation of the process to review all the discriminatory laws against women, declaring women as beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Scheme as well as of free distribution of state lands to female heads of households in the command areas of the dams to be built in the country.
The PPP endeavours for the emancipation of women in fact represent the continuation of the struggle launched by the stalwarts like Muhtarma Fatima Jinnah and Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan with which my late grandmother Begum Qamar Ispahani also had the privilege to be associated. Unfortunately, that process was severely disrupted due to the extremist ideology of Zia that resulted in promulgation of a number of discriminatory laws against women. The world however is witness to the fact that Shaheed Muhtarma Benazir Bhutto stood strong and unbowed and kept the flame of liberal thought alive. By doing so she helped protect Pakistan from the designs of the dictator, which were to change this nation into a theocratic state. Muhtarma’s struggle kept the torch of democracy, enlightenment and human rights aloft against all odds. Through her shahadat (martyrdom) she has imparted eternity to her vision about democracy and human rights in Pakistan. Inspired by Muhtarma’s vision, we continue to struggle for the empowerment of women.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a member of the National Assembly (MNA) and media advisor to the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)
Email: fispahani@gmail. com
Source: The News
Jahil Online Strikes again and this time [around 1400 hours dated 13-03-2010] in a repeat program talking about Veil and Chadar and Baypardah Women on TV Channels whereas completely forgetting about the Role GEO TV is playing while Promoting “Indecency” . Who can forget GEO TV Role during Hudood Law Debate in General Musharraf’s Tenure. GEO TV’s Double Standard is beyond the comprehension of Pakistanis who are already confused courtesy Non-Stop Bombardment of Hypocrisy of GEO TV: Ansar Abbasi, Unveiled GEO TV Female Announcers/Newscasters/Hostess/Anchors & The News International. http://chagataikhan.blogspot.com/2009/04/ansar-abbasi-unveiled-geo-tv-female.html
Equal rights and equal opportunities —Fauzia Yazdani
Female empowerment will not happen through political slogans, but through carefully designed policy interventions that focus on integrating women so as to further gender mainstreaming
I was part of the critical mass of women that was created to celebrate the International Women’s Day in Islamabad, jointly organised by the Ministry of Women’s Development (MOWD) and PTV on March 8, 2010. The critical mass had to wait, as usual, for almost two hours for the prime minister to grace the occasion. It was a show of pomp that failed to dedicate a moment of silence to recognise the large number of women who had lost their lives in conflict and abuse of human rights in Pakistan in 2009. Unfortunately, while the grand finale was singing ‘Let’s Touch the Skies’, the theme song of the day, six girls in Rawalpindi, 30 minutes from the venue, lost their lives to a fire in their hostel. But the show must go on.
The prime minister gracing an occasion has become a political indicator of the importance of the event, hence, this day also stood acknowledged at the highest level. The gift hamper for the women of Pakistan included: (i) the establishment of the Office of Women’s Ombudsman, (ii) 10 percent quota for women in the Central Superior Services (CSS) and (iii) the conversion of youth development centres into working women’s hostels. Besides, he announced that the National Commission on the Status of Women would be given complete administrative and financial autonomy, adding that the government had also decided to strengthen the First Women’s Bank to empower women economically. He ordered the Establishment and Finance Division to strengthen the MOWD and all other federal and provincial ministries and departments to mainstream gender equality.
This was my umpteenth women’s day function. Each year they start with a need to recognise the wajood (existence) of women in Pakistan and this year was no different. Our dilemma is that we focus on being the ‘first’ in the world and forget about the ‘rest’ at home — be it the first female Prime Minister, Speaker of the National Assembly, Governor of the State Bank or others. By ratifying international conventions like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), with marked reservations, the government plays to the gallery for international actors only. No doubt, these personalities and actions are landmark affirmative indicators, but what does all this mean for the 80 million vulnerable and marginalised women of Pakistan? Does it make 52 percent of the women in Pakistan feel safe, respected and empowered?
Let me discuss the ineptness of these announcements. The bumper prize — the Establishment of Women Ombudsman — leaves one wondering why another parallel, vertical, federal institution will be put in place. Having a women-specific institution does not translate into female empowerment, it rather adds to their marginalisation and compartmentalisation in this case. The regular ombudsman has legislative backing and a mandate, which facilitates across gender lines. A women’s ombudsman will neither empower nor increase the access to justice for women, as it is a federal set-up. Surely the authors of this institution neither attempted to gather feedback on the in-activation of district ombudsman set-ups under the Local Government Ordinance 2001, nor on the achievements of Justice and Arbitrary Committees (musalihat anjumans), which are available even at the Union Council level with women’s representation. That is why the new Local Government System has retained the musalihat anjumans, which deliver much more than a women’s ombudsman.
This left me wondering about what had stopped the prime minister to accord administrative and financial independence and autonomy for the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) with provincial outreach. A strong NCSW with provincial outreach would not only be a policy watch set-up, but could also facilitate set-ups like musalihat anjumans and provincial women’s development departments to deliver much more than a women’s ombudsman.
Gift number two: reservation of 10 percent quota for women for recruitment to public office, through a competitive examination called the Central Superior System (CSS). This system already has its due share of quotas: 10 percent seat allocation on merit, the rest of the seats as per provincial quotas and 10 percent quota for induction from the armed forces that land in premier service groups only, e.g. the foreign office. This system is based on open, nationwide competition. A substantial number of women have been competing and joining the Civil Service of Pakistan, besides being toppers. With the introduction of another quota slab for women, the word ‘competitive’ should be dropped from the CSS. What is the basis for this decision? Did the MOWD, NCSW or FPSC conduct any analysis that recorded a marked decrease in the induction of women to demand this reservation? I guess not because the statistics would have revealed a different trend. Around the world such competitive systems of public office recruitment are gender neutral and Pakistan is no exception.
Gift number three: converting Youth Development Centres into women hostels in Quetta and Peshawar. The youth constitutes almost 60 percent of our population, which, in itself, is a marginalised segment. This order would mean that the entire management system of these set-ups will be either jobless or will add to the free lunch brigade of public servants, because men cannot run women hostels. This means the capacity building of staff to manage a specific gender, besides refurbishing these set-ups in line with women specific needs, e.g. new toilets, higher boundary walls, etc., hence a complete institutional changeover. Again, is this decision based on statistical analysis? And how much would this institutional change of hands and transition cost the respective provincial governments, especially in Balochistan where the women’s development department became independent merely a few months ago?
The prime minister instructed the Establishment and Finance Division to strengthen the MOWD. I am reminded here of a verse by Allama Iqbal that says even God cannot improve the status of those who do not want it for themselves. This is apt in the case of MOWD, which could not even capitalise on the opportunity of having the prime minister of the country as its minister-in-charge for over a year. Unfortunately, it is perceived as one of the weakest ministerial set-ups, lacking staff, technical expertise and adequate financial allocation. It is further rated as an apex sidelined ministry. Numerous efforts of its strengthening and restructuring, with heavy financial inputs, are nicely shelved in its archives, leaving one to wonder how it will be strengthened by the input and support of the Establishment and Finance Division.
Last but not least, all federal ministries and provincial departments should be asked to facilitate gender reform and gender mainstreaming. There is no policy directive or guideline that can be used as a checklist to assess the level of sensitivity to women and responsiveness in governmental policies. The budgetary allocations and expenditure of the government are yet to be on a gender disaggregated basis. The PC-1 format of the Planning Commission also remains gender blind. Within such an environment, I wish gender mainstreaming was easier done than said by the prime minister, especially when even the term gender is being misused in the government set-up to indicate women only.
The prime minister assured everyone that his government was determined to follow and implement, in letter and spirit, Ms Bhutto’s vision of a greater and stronger Pakistan. I wish he had recognised the institutional, social and religio-cultural challenges that we are facing as a nation, where the definition of fundamental human rights is becoming skewed.
Female empowerment will not happen through political slogans, but through carefully designed policy interventions that focus on integrating women so as to further gender mainstreaming. It is high time that we take women’s empowerment beyond political rhetoric and slumber.
Fauzia Yazdani is an independent policy researcher and analyst. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I agree with sister Fauzia, I think she is on to something…