On March 8, International Women’s Day, (IWD) is commemorated in honour of the women who paved the way for change in the domain of women rights. IWD is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. However, it also serves as a glaring reminder that women are not enjoying the basic rights, privileges and ongoing inequality in modern society, a reminder that there is still a long way to go in the attainment of women’s rights globally.
The first IWD meetings, with over a million participants, took place on March 19, 1911, as part of a series of protests in Europe that sought to end discrimination against women by granting them the right to vote, hold public office, and work. These meetings developed strong ties to movements for women’s suffrage and the abolition of job discrimination. IWD was marked for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. Then in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights. Senior IWD authorities and prominent female leaders in various fields, e.g., science, technology, engineering, mathematics, etc., were to meet every year on March 8 at the UN Headquarters to debate about the progress and advancement of women’s rights.
Women’s advocacy and efforts have produced beneficial outcomes in a number of domains over the years and significant progress has been made. Additionally, it is becoming clear that women are powerful agents of change and taking proactive measures to address the lamentable conditions of women rights and global concerns like poverty, climate change, etc. The reality on the ground despite major strides in many areas is that much needs to be done the world over. Many women lack a voice in decisions affecting their own health, education, marriage, etc., On IWD, Pakistani voices unite in an ever-louder crescendo to demand that their inalienable rights to dignity and security be preserved as these rights are guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan.
Pakistan is one of the most populated countries in the world and women constitute about 48.54 per cent of the whole population. Women empowerment has always remained a contested issue in the complex socio-demographic and cultural milieu of the Pakistani society. Women are ranked lower than men on all vital human development indicators. There is no debate over the fact that women are at an unfair disadvantage in comparison to men and there is still a prevalence of deplorable women’s rights conditions in the country. The United Nations Young Women in Pakistan: Status Report 2020 shows a very dismal picture about the women’s rights in Pakistan. Only 63 per cent of women from 15 to 29 are literate. Nearly 14 per cent of married women report domestic violence (which is under-reported) while 44 per cent women believe that a man is justified in beating his wife. Over 25 per cent are married before the age of 18 and only 16 per cent use contraceptives, resulting in 32 per cent becoming mothers before the age of 20. As for the labor force participation ratio, it is only 32 per cent with more than half the workers being unpaid labor in the agricultural sector. It is, therefore, not surprising that only 24 per cent are in any way involved in decision-making in the family. Most of those who work do not even have control over their own cash wages.
Despite all the “pro-women” laws that have been passed in recent years, their rights are still in fact restricted by constrictive ideologies and antiquated customs. Misogynistic and patriarchal culture coupled with a lack of women empowerment has widened the gender gap. In the political arena, female parliamentarians are still much lower in proportion compared to their male counterparts. The social and cultural barriers and a lack of projection of female role models are demotivating for younger women. Women continue to experience sexual harassment at work and widespread “eve teasing” is prevalent that is discouraging for them and their families when deciding whether to enter the workforce.
In Pakistan, women hardly ever engage with the state and the vast majority are unaware that they are protected by the law or that laws are in place to facilitate them. Therefore, it is crucial to make sure that both men and women are made cognizant about women’s rights. In spite of the disheartening situation of women rights all is not doom and gloom; there are thousands of women’s that are engaged in the fields of education, medicine, information technology, etc., and their contribution is significant. In education, the performance of girls has been consistently better than the boys despite facing several social and economic constraints.
Dr Sara Qureshi, Muniba Mazari, Jehan Ara, Laraib Atta, Maria Umer, Arfa Karim, Samina Baig and the list goes on with women who have excelled in their fields. The most glaring example of female political leadership in Pakistan is the two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In parliament, despite their small numbers, the contribution of women in legislation and debates on serious national and international issues stands out.
The Way Forward
IWD celebrations in the country have evolved over the years for the raising of marginalized voices that are resisting the status quo. Successful women, internally displaced women, women from urban centers and rural areas, etc., all come together to draw strength from each other and the inspirational battles that many of them have fought, and to emphasize on the importance of collective action for women rights. The need is to highlight the accomplishments of our women who have broken stereotypes and come up against the tide so that aspiring young women and their families can draw strength to fight their own battles.
The essential element here is that the real concerns of the women should be raised by the women rights organizations effectively indigenizing the whole affair and in such a manner that it does not stir up unnecessary sentiment and potentially subvert the efforts of the generations of women who have brought the struggle this far, in addition to making the whole issue a subject of ridicule instead of positive action to address the problems faced by our women.
This should be complemented with initiatives to encourage duty bearers to take ownership of policies that help women. Access to functional and responsive judicial and administrative institutions is necessary for effective implementation. A major hindrance in converting women rights into reality is the entrenched misogynistic societal norms and attitudes. Therefore, the state must align its laws and policies with methods to change these attitudes to assist women so they can develop social capital outside of their families.
The advancements made in the past are under jeopardy due to the current conservative political agenda, which is frequently cloaked in religious language. Until women reach the positions of real power at the top of organizations and on the career echelons, women will not be able to push agendas of change that truly reshape the distressing women rights situation in Pakistan. We can all challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and seek out inclusion. Collective activism is what drives change and we should all have to play our part in the implementation of women rights in the society. HH
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