Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In the Land of Heer, Sohni and Sahiban: The Correlation between Gender Inequity and Women’s Health

“Once a daughter of the Punjab did weep and you poured out songs of lamentation
Today a thousand daughters weep, O Waris, but who is there to listen?”
–Amrita Pritam
There was a time, in this land of the Pure, when celebrated poets like Waris Shah immortalized the beauty and substance of the female spirit in soulful Punjabi verse. The tales they told –of Sohni, Sahiban and Heer –were recounted perennially, in villages and in cities, around the warmth of a fireplace in the winters and under the shade of Banyan trees in the summers. That time, regretfully, is part of a bygone era. Today, as a result of the moral and cultural discourse of the country being hijacked by an intrinsically myopic and patriarchal interpretation of Islam, women have been reduced to little more than objects; to be seen but not heard. In terms of numbers this poor societal status granted to women in Pakistan boils down to a situation where only 33% of women (10 years and older) have completed primary education and the total number of employed women equaling 11.81million –65% of which are engaged in unpaid work in family enterprise –is nearly four times less than that of men. As a result women in Pakistan have become increasingly dependent on a population of males who believe that the censure and control of women is their divine, masculine right.
However as worrying as the impeded social and economic development of Pakistani women may seem, the fact that their exclusion from education and employment has more immediate and detrimental effects on other, indirectly related aspects of their lives –such as their physical and reproductive health –is a cause of greater concern.
Although the physical and reproductive health of most women in Pakistan –except a select few –is in jeopardy it is rather shocking to note that pregnant mothers are not exceptions to the rule; the rule that justifies discrimination against women in all spheres of public and private life, regardless of the consequences, on the basis of perceived Islamic cultural norms. Ironically, in this respect the guardians of our “Islamic culture” (who are, by and large, male) are in gross violation of authentic Islamic tradition –which grants a special, elevated status to all mothers. However, regardless of religious teachings, maternal mortality is a human rights issue of vast proportions, with a total of 82 maternal deaths occurring in Pakistan, daily. Furthermore, it is estimated that 80% of these deaths occur due to largely preventable reasons –such as the fact that only 34% of all deliveries are attended by trained health professionals –that derive from poverty, illiteracy and gender imbalances present in our society.
Regretfully, however, the health problems faced by Pakistani women are not just limited to increased risk of death or complications due to childbirth. Our country is home to a host of loathsome cultural practices such as “kari” which justify severe and often fatal violence against women who allegedly violate family “honor”. With the existence of such brutal cultural practices it is hardly surprising that violence against women is rampant and perpetrated under a broad range of pretexts – ranging from attempts at sexual coercion to reasons as trivial as not serving a timely cup of tea. Even more concerning is the fact that such instances of violence against women are provided complete legitimacy under the garb of culture and religion: a Senator, Mir Israrullah Zehri, who is now a member of President Zardari’s cabinet, rather self-righteously stood up in the Balochistan Senate and defended the custom of burying women alive as a “Baloch tribal custom” which should be “respected”. With this audibly asinine pat on back provided to the perpetrators of gender-based violence by our esteemed cabinet minister it is no wonder that 1321 instances were reported in the print media in the first quarter of 2008 alone. Assuming that this trend has neither increased nor decreased over the years we can expect a total of 5284 cases of gender based violence in each successive year. And while this figure is slightly lower than the 6000 US and coalition soldier deaths –in their joint occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan –one would assume that is far more preferable to take a bullet in the head than to be buried alive.
Hence it is clear that the plight caused by the exclusion of women from social and economic systems cannot be ignored any longer especially in light of the adverse effects this has on women’s health prospects. Meaningful female involvement in society is necessary if Pakistan is to meet the human development targets it hopes to achieve in the future. And though NGO’s such as the World Population Foundation and the Aurat Foundation and government agencies such as the Ministry of Population Welfare and Ministry of Women Development are doing meaningful work at the policy and service delivery level with regards to improving overall physical and reproductive health of women in Pakistan, their coordinated and individual efforts should focus on alternate approaches –such as male involvement in the process of female empowerment alongside advocacy to increase female representation in society –which address the root cause of the prevalent poor health prospects of women in Pakistan. This approach will be far more effective, in the long run, than curative intervention measures such as setting up women health clinics, mobilizing Lady Health Workers and setting up domestic violence shelters.
An edited version of this article was printed in Dawn, issue of 1st August, 2010.

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