Monday, March 15, 2010

VIEW: Equal rights and equal opportunities -Fauzia Yazdani

 Female empowerment will not happen through political slogans, but through 
carefully designed policy interventions that focus on integrating women so as 
to further gender mainstreaming

I was part of the critical mass of women that was created to celebrate the 
International Women's Day in Islamabad, jointly organised by the Ministry of 
Women's Development (MOWD) and PTV on March 8, 2010. The critical mass had to 
wait, as usual, for almost two hours for the prime minister to grace the 
occasion. It was a show of pomp that failed to dedicate a moment of silence to 
recognise the large number of women who had lost their lives in conflict and 
abuse of human rights in Pakistan in 2009. Unfortunately, while the grand 
finale was singing 'Let's Touch the Skies', the theme song of the day, six 
girls in Rawalpindi, 30 minutes from the venue, lost their lives to a fire in 
their hostel. But the show must go on.

The prime minister gracing an occasion has become a political indicator of the 
importance of the event, hence, this day also stood acknowledged at the highest 
level. The gift hamper for the women of Pakistan included: (i) the 
establishment of the Office of Women's Ombudsman, (ii) 10 percent quota for 
women in the Central Superior Services (CSS) and (iii) the conversion of youth 
development centres into working women's hostels. Besides, he announced that 
the National Commission on the Status of Women would be given complete 
administrative and financial autonomy, adding that the government had also 
decided to strengthen the First Women's Bank to empower women economically. He 
ordered the Establishment and Finance Division to strengthen the MOWD and all 
other federal and provincial ministries and departments to mainstream gender 

This was my umpteenth women's day function. Each year they start with a need to 
recognise the wajood (existence) of women in Pakistan and this year was no 
different. Our dilemma is that we focus on being the 'first' in the world and 
forget about the 'rest' at home - be it the first female Prime Minister, 
Speaker of the National Assembly, Governor of the State Bank or others. By 
ratifying international conventions like the Committee on the Elimination of 
Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), with marked reservations, the government 
plays to the gallery for international actors only. No doubt, these 
personalities and actions are landmark affirmative indicators, but what does 
all this mean for the 80 million vulnerable and marginalised women of Pakistan? 
Does it make 52 percent of the women in Pakistan feel safe, respected and 

Let me discuss the ineptness of these announcements. The bumper prize - the 
Establishment of Women Ombudsman - leaves one wondering why another parallel, 
vertical, federal institution will be put in place. Having a women-specific 
institution does not translate into female empowerment, it rather adds to their 
marginalisation and compartmentalisation in this case. The regular ombudsman 
has legislative backing and a mandate, which facilitates across gender lines. A 
women's ombudsman will neither empower nor increase the access to justice for 
women, as it is a federal set-up. Surely the authors of this institution 
neither attempted to gather feedback on the in-activation of district ombudsman 
set-ups under the Local Government Ordinance 2001, nor on the achievements of 
Justice and Arbitrary Committees (musalihat anjumans), which are available even 
at the Union Council level with women's representation. That is why the new 
Local Government System has retained the musalihat anjumans, which deliver much 
more than a women's ombudsman. 

This left me wondering about what had stopped the prime minister to accord 
administrative and financial independence and autonomy for the National 
Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) with provincial outreach. A strong 
NCSW with provincial outreach would not only be a policy watch set-up, but 
could also facilitate set-ups like musalihat anjumans and provincial women's 
development departments to deliver much more than a women's ombudsman.

Gift number two: reservation of 10 percent quota for women for recruitment to 
public office, through a competitive examination called the Central Superior 
System (CSS). This system already has its due share of quotas: 10 percent seat 
allocation on merit, the rest of the seats as per provincial quotas and 10 
percent quota for induction from the armed forces that land in premier service 
groups only, e.g. the foreign office. This system is based on open, nationwide 
competition. A substantial number of women have been competing and joining the 
Civil Service of Pakistan, besides being toppers. With the introduction of 
another quota slab for women, the word 'competitive' should be dropped from the 
CSS. What is the basis for this decision? Did the MOWD, NCSW or FPSC conduct 
any analysis that recorded a marked decrease in the induction of women to 
demand this reservation? I guess not because the statistics would have revealed 
a different trend. Around the world such competitive systems of public office 
recruitment are gender neutral and Pakistan is no exception. 

Gift number three: converting Youth Development Centres into women hostels in 
Quetta and Peshawar. The youth constitutes almost 60 percent of our population, 
which, in itself, is a marginalised segment. This order would mean that the 
entire management system of these set-ups will be either jobless or will add to 
the free lunch brigade of public servants, because men cannot run women 
hostels. This means the capacity building of staff to manage a specific gender, 
besides refurbishing these set-ups in line with women specific needs, e.g. new 
toilets, higher boundary walls, etc., hence a complete institutional 
changeover. Again, is this decision based on statistical analysis? And how much 
would this institutional change of hands and transition cost the respective 
provincial governments, especially in Balochistan where the women's development 
department became independent merely a few months ago?

The prime minister instructed the Establishment and Finance Division to 
strengthen the MOWD. I am reminded here of a verse by Allama Iqbal that says 
even God cannot improve the status of those who do not want it for themselves. 
This is apt in the case of MOWD, which could not even capitalise on the 
opportunity of having the prime minister of the country as its 
minister-in-charge for over a year. Unfortunately, it is perceived as one of 
the weakest ministerial set-ups, lacking staff, technical expertise and 
adequate financial allocation. It is further rated as an apex sidelined 
ministry. Numerous efforts of its strengthening and restructuring, with heavy 
financial inputs, are nicely shelved in its archives, leaving one to wonder how 
it will be strengthened by the input and support of the Establishment and 
Finance Division. 

Last but not least, all federal ministries and provincial departments should be 
asked to facilitate gender reform and gender mainstreaming. There is no policy 
directive or guideline that can be used as a checklist to assess the level of 
sensitivity to women and responsiveness in governmental policies. The budgetary 
allocations and expenditure of the government are yet to be on a gender 
disaggregated basis. The PC-1 format of the Planning Commission also remains 
gender blind. Within such an environment, I wish gender mainstreaming was 
easier done than said by the prime minister, especially when even the term 
gender is being misused in the government set-up to indicate women only.

The prime minister assured everyone that his government was determined to 
follow and implement, in letter and spirit, Ms Bhutto's vision of a greater and 
stronger Pakistan. I wish he had recognised the institutional, social and 
religio-cultural challenges that we are facing as a nation, where the 
definition of fundamental human rights is becoming skewed. 

Female empowerment will not happen through political slogans, but through 
carefully designed policy interventions that focus on integrating women so as 
to further gender mainstreaming. It is high time that we take women's 
empowerment beyond political rhetoric and slumber.

Fauzia Yazdani is an independent policy researcher and analyst. She can be 
reached at

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