Sunday, April 4, 2010

MALADY OF A CRIPPLING NATION

By Anum Raza Hasan

Structural flaws, leadership vacuum — the blame game knows no end. Self-reflection offers riveting counsel to overcome self-defeating phrases. Maybe one should stop relying on state authorities to show willingness for change. Perhaps change begins from within by paying testimony to the power and outreach of self-initiative.

Human development entails an earnest attribute of placing people at the heart of development. It presents the idea that perhaps people are entitled to realising their potential, increasing their choices and enjoying the freedom to lead lives they value. Because women comprise more than half of our human resources and are central to the social as well as economic wellbeing of societies, development goals cannot be fully reached without their participation. Women and development thus becomes a holistic concept wherein the goal of one cannot be achieved without the success of the other. But has Pakistan realised yet that ignoring 51 percent of its population — its women — and keeping them in oblivion will only debase its already crippled framework of existence and face of civil society capacity to survive, let alone progress? The gap between male and female literacy that ranks Pakistan 127th out of 130 countries surveyed last year by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum forecasts an imminent disaster.

The report titled ‘Power Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and Pacific Asia’ reveals almost half of the adult women in South Asia are illiterate, a higher proportion than in any other region in the world. It chronicles that Pakistani women’s participation in the labour force is less than 20.8 percent of the female population and in parliamentary representation, women hold only four percent of ministerial positions. Although the net primary school enrolment for girls is 57.3 percent, the secondary school enrolment is 25.8 percent with tertiary enrolment as low as 4.2 percent. Lifting the veil on gender discrimination in Pakistan as the world looks to the region for breakthroughs in marked development, to restore global economic growth and geo-strategic stability, one must finally wake up to half its people that may still be left out, to the disconfigured smokescreen — its women.

One of the notable advancements in the development debate had been the move to consider gender equality as a key element on its agenda. Disappointment over the trickle-down approach paved the way for the adoption of the basic needs strategy, which focused on increasing the participation in and benefits of the development process for the poor, while the women-in-development initiative recognised women’s needs and contributions to society. We must realise that development requires more than the creation of opportunities for people to earn sustainable livelihoods; it also requires the creation of a conducive environment for men and women to seize those opportunities. Development should translate into sustained improvements in the well being of the individual — men and women alike. Development implies not only more and better schools but also equal access to education for boys and girls and governments that give men and women equal voices in decision-making and policy implementation.

If one were to check Pakistan’s scorecard on gender sensitive literacy initiatives, this is how it would read. In 2003, the Punjab government with assistance from the World Bank implemented the “Girls’ Stipend Programme”, which provided a cash stipend of Rs 200 to families to ensure their daughters attend school. As a result girls’ enrolment in secondary schools in the 15 poorest districts in Punjab increased by 60 percent from 175,000 to 280,000 since 2003. This project was extended to include high school girls as well. During the past decade, several policy initiatives were undertaken, each with a strong component for improving girls’ education in the country such as the National Education Policy 1992 and 1998-2010, the Social Action Programme (SAP) in 1993/94, which focused on improving the social indicators for girls and women. The common provisions endorsed by all the policy initiatives included universal primary education for girls and additional funding for women’s literacy programmes. This may seem satisfactory; however; these could be a square peg in a round hole or simply insufficient for the structural problem remains largely unaddressed.

Barriers to girl child education require an integrated approach where poverty and household income of the family that affects parents’ choices to prioritise expenditure on the education of their children need to be tackled. Patriarchal structures of Pakistani society that assign men the dominant role and hence preference for sons’ education need to be challenged. Low status associated with women generally participating in income generating activities that are said to lead to neglect of their husbands, children and families needs to be rethought. Socialisation of girls that remains inferior to that of their male counterparts while growing up needs to be questioned. Gender-sensitive policies officially claimed to be the guiding principle — enshrining them in the millennium development goals which the government has signed — will not be enough. One needs a multi-pronged attack on the structural challenges of gender inequality for female literacy to be given a chance to flourish. It is while keeping this picture in mind that the government must set about improving educational facilities for girls. However, such an action would only be cosmetic unless accompanied by a strong effort to change existing mindsets that currently see women as unequal to men.

In a nation plagued by multiple ailments, be it the threat of terrorism or deprivation of basic supplements, each citizen has high stakes in making gender equality work. The structural repair cannot be managed without the support of men themselves as they should realise that educating and empowering their female counterparts would only elevate the positive returns from life and reduce misgivings. Notwithstanding the breakthrough with legal frameworks protecting women against harassment and domestic violence, the woman is again pegged as a victim rather than a free individual. Let’s not bury the pervasive need to liberate women from the restrictive jacket of narrow societal prejudices and emerge as agents of a change that spells equal opportunity.

Structural flaws, leadership vacuum — the blame game knows no end. Self-reflection offers riveting counsel to overcome self-defeating phrases. Maybe one should stop relying on state authorities to show willingness for change. Perhaps change begins from within by paying testimony to the power and outreach of self-initiative. May I suggest an inkling of reawakening to the dearest reader of conscience to extol options beyond pragmatism, to do whatever it takes but acknowledging, establishing and nurturing the female genre as critical to leave some sort of vestiges of ‘progress’ and equality our generation can process. Pakistan must not leave us behind because if it knew most maladies eventually prove unforgiving to the lives and existence of humans and nations alike.

Anum Raza Hasan is a freelance journalist and human rights activist with an academic specialisation in International Development. She can be reached at anumhasan@dailytimes.com.pk
Courtesy Daily Times, March 27, 2010

No comments: