Consumer rights for women in Pakistan -by Naseer Ahmed

Any discussion of women in Pakistan must be in the context of the culture of the various ethnic groups there. Common to all ethnic groups is a Patriarchal society that views women more or less as property. The birth of a male child is celebrated with joy, because he is an unqualified asset to the family and the community. The birth of a female, while welcomed by her parents, is viewed as a financial and social liability. Females are viewed as inferior to males in all respects.

Most Pakistanis share very fine linguistic constructions to describe women, like “Beauty of God,” “Honour of House,” “Daughter of Eve,” “ Queen…” etc. These semantic honorifics notwithstanding, the reality of a females life is quite different. There is an epidemic of abuse reported constantly. That so called “Beauty of God,” might have acid thrown in her face for refusing to marry a suitor, or daring to resist dishonour. If perchance she is dishonoured through her fault or not, she will likely be punished with any penalty devised by the males in her life, from thrashing to being executed. The ignorant attitudes which perpetuate this vicious train of discriminatory practices against women, in all facets of life, are the cultural norm.

This cultural norm is easily seen in the roles assigned to each in the social order, particularly in rural areas. It is the responsibility of the women to obtain water. They may walk miles to the nearest well, and miles back with heavy water jars on their heads. It is culturally unacceptable for males to help with this everyday necessity. In spite of this, it is rare and sometimes dangerous for a woman to venture outside the home or village area alone. At all times she must guard her honour. So, even if she does seek health care services, she would be accompanied by a female relative or in law to the clinic. Likewise, she would have to have the consent of not just the men in her life to seek health care, but from the women in his family as well. It is the elder females in the household, the mother in law, aunts in law etc. Who control all aspects of the well being of the mother and fetus, the mother alone, and the young married woman’s gynaecological care. So, the consumer herself, is not the one to decide what is best or what will be done with regard to her own health. So even if she is literate, she cannot decide for herself.

Education is provided along sharply contrasting gender lines as well. The literacy rate of females in Pakistan is 39.6 percent, compared to that of males at 67.7 percent. Thus a woman’s right to have clear, precise, and accurate information about the products and services she may consume suffers because she is unable to understand what is available on the packaging, the internet, or other consumer information venues.

Access to basic services like health care, dental care, transportation, as well as simple social interaction is greatly restricted and governed by the males in her family, her husband’s family, (including the elder females in his family, especially his mother), and in some cases her natal family even after marriage. To these authority figures she must turn for her needs and wishes. Where money is in short supply, basic access to preventive health care, prenatal care, postnatal care, and gynaecological care is seen as non essential. While some information is available about women’s consumption of health care services, it is generally incomplete and unsatisfactory. The World Health Organization was unable to

quantify the use of prenatal iron and folic acid supplementation among pregnant women. This illustrates an even bigger problem. For many women in Pakistan inferior or ineffective services is not the only problem, or even a problem at all. A total lack of services is the problem. In contrast, Unicef, as well as the Pakistan Economic Survey, 2010-11, have some very comprehensive statistics about the mortality rate of infants at birth. It is not the gathering of information that is problematic. It is that there is no information to gather regarding access to vital services that is the issue.

A woman’s right to use safe and satisfactory products is heavily dependent on men in most of rural and urban Pakistan, because most women are not allowed to shop for themselves. Even those who earn an independent income are not free to spend as they wish. Either their mother in law or their husband controls the family finances, including what she might earn. Such women end up using whatever their men purchase or provide for them. For a woman to question a man’s wisdom or choice in such matters is regarded as sinful in many places in Pakistan. Whatever he chooses, is what is best.

If a product is defective or harmful, seeking redress from the manufacturer, distributor or seller is not an option for most women because of various cultural, social, political and economic reasons. Similarly, seeking satisfaction in a court of law is a fool’s errand because the courts do not favour female litigants. In terms of consumer rights the most disadvantaged group is also the group most in need of protection. These rural and urban poor suffer the most because they do not have the representation, participation and influence with politically powerful entities to seek or be granted justice.

Generally speaking, there is a sea of discrimination against women as consumers which gets deeper and deeper with the passage of time. The power centres in Pakistani life are closed to women as a rule. There are no women in the higher ranks in the military. There are no women on the Supreme Court, which with recent developments, has gained considerable power. There are a few women in Parliament, but too few. Out of 36 Federal Ministers, only 4 are female.

There have been some positive changes recently for women in Pakistan. Representation in Parliament has encouraged some protective laws enacted on behalf of women. These are inadequate on their face, and poorly enforced however. With time that situation may improve. There is increased access to knowledge in general with the use of the internet, mass communication, personal communication devices, and educational initiatives in response to the recent catastrophic flooding. There is increased awareness due to the efforts of NGO’s, international aid organizations such as MSF, USAID, UNICEF, and WHO., and the Pakistani media. In spite of the efforts of all of the above, there are intractable conditions prevalent in the country, which make it difficult to impossible for women to exercise their rights as consumers. Pakistani Consumer Laws seem to ignore the gender inequality in society. Lawmakers and enforcers know quite well what is happening in, but they choose to look the other way. They can and indeed must provide some effective solutions to address the gender discrimination issues with regard to consumer rights, but doing so on paper is only the first step. Society itself, must change its attitude toward women in Pakistan. Since those in power are for the most part male, it is unlikely that the status quo will be disturbed without some outside catalyst, or the women of Pakistan speaking up with a unified voice.