International Women’s Day has been celebrated in Pakistan every year, with leaders promising to meet the theme set by the United Nations: ‘Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030’. But making a promise is one thing, meeting it quite another.
The year 2030 is only 12 years away, but given the hold of our sacrosanct socio-cultural values we could be a century away from gender parity. We make laws promising equal rights and opportunities to Pakistan’s womenfolk in various walks of life, then step back in face of rejection by doctrinaire lobbies and submit to diluting amendments to legislation.
No wonder gender inequality remains in the country. The targets set by the UN for 2030 are hard to meet unless there is radical change in Pakistani society. Is it possible to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development care, so that they are ready for primary education to which they should have equal access?” To say nothing of giving the girl child an opportunity equal to that given to the boy, even bearing a girl child can become a stigma for the mother.
Let her have a second baby girl and her husband and his family could start looking for a second wife. By 2030, we are expected to “end all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere.” But even in our cities and towns, women and girls are not even expected to be “everywhere.” They should stay at home, carry out house chores and bear lots of children – and if a woman is given employment, she should be ready for sexual harassment. There is the call for elimination of “all forms of violence, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation and early and forced marriages.”
The agenda sounds over-optimistic from our own point of view. More than a thousand women in Pakistan were put to death last year in “honour killing.” The Islamic Ideology Council forced revision of a provincial assembly enactment banning early and forced marriages. No surprise, then, that Pakistan was ranked the second-worst country for gender equality last year by the World Economic Forum.
But change is in the air. Thanks to easy access to digital technology, the increasingly bold mass media and frequent international travel by Pakistanis, people are now in contact with the rest of the world and imbibing global culture. “Be Bold for Change” was the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, and change is certainly on the way in Pakistan. Our women are expected to compete with men, they are doing it in ever-greater numbers – and in quite a few fields doing better than men.
At times it is women and girls who have won honours for the country when members of the male sex could not. This is particularly in schools, colleges and universities. It is a woman who for the first time won the top slot in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You give them the chance and they won’t disappoint you. As to what should be done at public level to empower women, the ball is in the government’s court. It could take the initiative by providing women the level playing field they so richly deserve.
Give political power to women by ensuring their unrestricted participation in elections, increase their seats in the legislatures, have more women in cabinets and appoint them to head important ministries and departments. Empower them politically and they will help realise the much-talked-about dream of obtaining socio-cultural and economic equilibrium in Pakistan.