POVERTY OF OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN

The Nation
October 22, 2004

By BENAZIR BHUTTO

 

Miriam’s is a typical family set-up in rural Pakistan. Every morning, she sends her two eldest sons to the village school while she, her only surviving daughter, and her youngest son, aged one, remain at home. The daughter looks after the infant and assists her mother in the household and the fields.

During mealtime, Miriam serves her husband first, followed by the sons. Last, she divides what is left, if any, between herself and her female offspring. Miriam runs the household as most other rural women do - bitterly. When her sons get sick, she cuts corners further to buy medicine. When her daughter falls ill, she prays for her recovery knowing that the girl child would always be treated as inferior to her brothers. She would remain a victim of the ‘poverty of opportunities’.

Poverty has several dimensions in Pakistan. It includes low incomes and lack of access to basic needs like health, education, nutrition, proper drinking water and sanitation. The poor people’s inability to access basic social services results in their eventual social exclusion.Although poverty abated during periods of democratic governance, the trend reversed in the late 1990s. The depth and severity of poverty also underwent an increase with the total Poverty Gap Index increasing from 4.2 percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent in 2000. The Asian Development Bank’s report on Poverty in Pakistan attributed this phenomenon to low economic growth, a fall in public sector spending and lower worker remittances.

Despite the rescheduling of Pakistan’s debts following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, there was little economic investment in women-related projects. Women continue to suffer poverty and backwardness. The existing gender role ideology in Pakistan views men as the breadwinners in society. The woman’s world is sometimes confined literally to the four walls of their homes as mothers and wives.

Studies indicate that the poorer the household, the greater the probability that the family unit is dependent on female labour. This is explained by the low economic value of female labour in Pakistan. The relatively lower skills base of women is a direct result of society investing less in them. Today, for every 100 literate males, there are only 65 literate females. While this is a dismal picture, it is nonetheless a big improvement on the condition that existed in Pakistan in 1988 before the dawn of democracy.

During the democratic periods, the Pakistan Peoples Party was able to declare 1989 as the year of the girl child in Pakistan as well as in South Asia. The PPP went on to invest in opening primary schools for girls as well as recruiting and training teachers, many of whom were women, for the new schools to enhance female education.

Similarly, democracy meant better access to health for females. However, democratic periods in Pakistan were too few. The powerful military establishment intervened at regular intervals, stopping the progress of women, as well as men, to basic necessities such as health, water, electricity and, most important of all, decision -making.

It is the empowerment of ordinary people through the democratic process that can best tackle the enormous problems of poverty and backwardness that scar the lives of billions of people across the world today. A representative government is accountable to the people who elect it. It must meet the needs of voters to stay in power. Dictatorship faces no such responsibility.

The cry for freedom is a cry to liberate humanity from impoverishment, illiteracy, illness and indignity. Our new century must be a century of freedom, of the rule of law and of accountability to the people if it is to shake off the curse of poverty. Poverty is not a fatality. It is a consequence of governance systems.
As education spreads amongst women and as more women appear in decision-making roles, they create new opportunities for women everywhere. The greater participation of women through affirmative action is the means to ensure a better quality of life for women in nations and across the world.

As a woman leader in a traditional society, it was an honour for my party to present the bill for women’s affirmative representation in Parliament. This idea was adopted by the present regime in Pakistan. Consequently, women today have a greater participation in the Parliament, as well as in local self-government.

Increasingly, the participation of women in decision-making roles is seen as key to modernizing and moderating society.

One of the key turning points for women was the holding of the United Nations World Conference for Women in Beijing in 1995. It was at this conference that Pakistan signed the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Even as I authorized the signing of the declaration, I understood how divided society stood on the issue. The empowerment of women is welcomed by modernizers. Yet it frightens traditionalists who fear that women will “forget their place” in society as second-class citizens.

One of the consequences of signing CEDAW was that it set yardsticks for nations to meet. Consequently, a National Plan of Action and the National Policy for Development and Empowerment of Women was constituted. This laid out the framework for the implementation of almost two hundred actions addressing women’s social, economic and political empowerment. It paved the way for the objective of achieving the agenda for women’s empowerment.

The very fabric of Pakistan’s society is undergoing a fundamental change. There is a battle for Pakistan’s future. Pakistan today stands at the crossroads. It must choose between the path of reform and the path of reversal to the past. The October 2002 elections in Pakistan were deeply flawed, as noted by European observers. Those elections marginalized the modernizers and democrats. It saw the rise of religious parties who are sympathetic to the social mores of the obscurantist Taliban view of women.
Pakistan’s military ruler makes the right noises regarding moderation. However, it is deeds rather than words that affect change. In the absence of modernizing political parties that respect freedom and gender equality, the danger is that the country will continue on the path of poverty and backwardness. And poverty affects women more distinctly.

There was a report this month which prophesized that in Pakistan, by 2010, the “modernizers will have lost out to the religious and extremist zealots”. It went on to gloomily predict that, “the military, in effect, will become the armed wing of the theocracy and religious extremism – one armed with a nuclear bomb and half a million of religious motivated army.”

This dismal scenario can be averted. There are men and women of goodwill in society who understand the consequences of undermining true democracy. It is these men and women who will charter the future course of Pakistan ensuring a restoration of true democracy. It is that restoration that can give to Pakistan the opportunity to build a modern country that ensures that poverty is a reflection of systems of governance and the priorities that governments set for themselves.

Clearly, the path to progress lies in respecting freedom, human dignity, the rule of law and building a social edifice where the focus is on women’s rights, literacy, health and a tolerant society. And women will play an important part in shaping that society. When women are respected to the same extent as men, it enhances the social standing of a nation within the global world community. Women like Miriam deserve a better future free of malnutrition, overwork and the cycle of ‘poverty of opportunities’.



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