Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women

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Aisha Khan*

The UN Millennium Declaration was approved by 191countries at the September 2000 UN Millennium Summit. This was the largest ever gathering of world leaders in which 147 heads of government participated.

The landmark Declaration recognizes the centrality of women in the development processes. The governments committed themselves to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women as the effective way for combating poverty, hunger and disease and thereby stimulating truly sustainable development.

The  Millennium  Development  Goals  (MDGs)  issued  by  the UN Secretary General in 2001 collectively constitute a roadmap for implementing the Millennium Declaration. The MDGs comprise eight goals:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty.

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education.

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women. Goal 4:              Reduce child mortality.

Goal 5: Improve maternal health.

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.

Goal 8: Develop global partnership for development.

These are supplemented by 18 numerical time-bound targets and 48  indicators  aimed  at  improving  living  conditions  and  remedying key global imbalances by 2015. Goal 3 calls for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

From the 1975 UN International Year of Women through the Decade of Women (1976-1985) in which the most significant achievement is the 1981 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to the global summits and conferences of the 1990s, the United Nations has been a key forum for women’s advocacy.

These conferences include the Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the vital role of women in environmental management and development and the need for their full participation to achieve sustainable development was recognized. The International Conference on Human Rights (Vienna 1993) where women’s human rights were spelled out for the first time, The International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994) where formal recognition was given to women’s reproductive rights, The World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen 1995) where the link between gender equality and poverty was explicitly recognized and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 where the advocates won a broad-based agenda for promoting and protecting women’s human rights worldwide, established the principal of shared power and responsibility between women and men in all areas. Women’s advocate groups have been successful in establishing strategic mechanisms, influencing resolutions and winning crucial commitments to shape a global policy agenda that recognizes gender equality and women’s empowerment as essential components of poverty eradication, human development and human rights.

The MDGs have broad support from the 191 UN member states, affiliated UN agencies and international trade and financial institutions that are all committed to the 2015 timeline. In this regard the review and follow-up processes to UN conferences and summits of the past decade will provide a critical opportunity to implement the policy gains of the International Women’s Movement. In this context the MDGs offer three main challenges to women’s advocates:

  • To ensure a gender sensitive approach to the implementation at the national level, integrating gender across all the goals.
  • To demand adequate resources and equitable global economic policies that are consistent with social and environmental needs.
  • To  link  MDGs  to  other  ongoing  global  and  national  policy processes.

Gender equality is not an isolated goal but an essential ingredient for achieving all the MDGs be it poverty eradication, protecting the environment or access to healthcare. The MDGs are mutually reinforcing and success in meeting the goals will have a positive impact on gender equality just as progress in gender equality in one area will help to advance each of the other goals.

The gender dimension has always played a significantly important role in human development. However the concept of this role has evolved with the evolution of society from agrarian to industrial and from industrial to the age of technology. This progression of mankind from an agro-based to a techno-oriented society has changed the social order and with it the roles of both men and women. Unfortunately, women were not allowed the space to keep pace with this transition in a wholesome manner and were forced by the new economic empowerment of men and the sudden change from the rural to the   urban landscape with all its attendant socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural demands, to play a different role from what their gender had hitherto been accustomed.

The majority of the world’s poor are women. Gender equality has a direct impact on economic growth and the reduction of poverty by raising productivity, improving efficiency, increasing economic opportunities and empowering women. Of the 150 million children aged 6-11 who do not attend school, over 90 million are girls. Of the 876 million illiterate over 15 years, two-thirds are women. Over 500,000 women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth. Globally 48 percent of adults living with

HIV/AIDS are women. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of all sickness in the world is attributable to unsafe water and sanitation. Water-borne diseases kill 3.4 million people annually, mostly children. Millions more fall ill with diarrhoea, malaria, schistosomiasis, arsenic poisoning, trachoma and hepatitis, diseases that are preventable by access to clean water and health care information. Women have a strong link with the environment. The survival of their household and communities  depends  on  their  access  and  use  of  natural  resources like land, water, forests and plants but their role is generally ignored. Moreover the task of fetching water is mainly borne by women and girls and this inhibits their involvement in activities such as education and income generation as well as political and social work. Women also bear the main burden of caring for the sick which limits their income- generating activities and education, but medical costs associated with illness, increase household debts and deepen poverty.

Women’s empowerment therefore needs to be made an integral part of broader issues such as health, education, economics, politics, legal systems and decision making bodies to yield long term positive results for the transformation of society.

The MDGs are a set of minimal goals that are necessary but not sufficient for human development. They do not represent gender equity and the structural transformation envisaged in UN conferences and human rights instruments. All country reports submitted in 2003 failed to mention gender in relation to Goal 7 i.e., ensuring environmental sustainability.

Achieving Goals 1-7 will depend on the extent the UN system, national governments and international trade and financial institutions are able to develop Goal 8, namely, a global partnership for development. The current target which includes global trade and financial systems, good governance, official development assistance, market access and debt, do not adequately address the systemic inequities and power imbalances within the global economic system that undermine the goals. The emphasis has been more on what the poor countries need to do without specifying any timeframe, quantifiable benchmarks or accountable.

According to a report compiled by the Women’s Environment and Development  Organization  “Governments  worldwide  have  adopted a piecemeal and incremental approach to women’s rights that cannot achieve the goals in the landmark platform of action adopted at the 1995 UN conference in Beijing.” The report further states that across all regions women are often still considered unequal to men; in the workplace, at home, in the government; and assigned roles accordingly. The report blames powerful trends for the inequality, growing poverty, militarization and fundamental opposition to women’s rights which has resulted in worsening the plight of women worldwide.

This gender-blind macro-economics and national policies keep women concentrated in the informal sector and in the lowest paying jobs in the formal economy. Women still earn less than men for the same job and remain under-represented in decision making. This systemic inequity and power imbalance needs to be corrected.

In Pakistan, the word gender is often misunderstood and misused. Gender does not refer exclusively to women nor does it imply a western approach to life. It reiterates that the concept applies to women and men, as well as their relation to one another and how they relate to their environment, deal with situations, utilize resources and make decisions about their lives and the future.

Gender equality is also misconstrued by the general public who think that women want equal numbers in all areas of work whereas it simply means recognition of the reality that men and women have different needs and priorities and contribute to development in different ways.

The key component in gender development is equity. This requires giving equal opportunity to women and men to create a level playing field in which both can achieve their maximum capacity in their own chosen area of work and interest without social disadvantages. Gender equity leads to gender equality.

Gender equality and equity pave the way for gender mainstreaming. This can only start with an understanding of the different positions of women and men and girls and boys in society. Gender does not refer to  women  and  men  but  to  the  relationship  between  them  and  the way behaviours and identities are determined through the process of socialization. Gender mainstreaming is therefore a strategy for making the concerns of both women and men and their collective and individual experiences  form  an  integral  dimension  of  design,  implementation and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally.

All this leads to empowerment which can be defined as people taking control of their lives and living it in a way that reflects their hopes and aspirations with dignity and respect and in harmony and balance with nature.

Equity, equality and empowerment therefore constitute the 3 Es which form the basis for sustainable development, world peace and prosperity for all.

The MDGs, whether taken individually or collectively, point to a basic human need; the need for every human being to be treated with respect and dignity. There are 200 countries in the world today with a combined population of more than 6 billion of which women comprise 50 percent.

A myriad of differences exist between these countries in ethnic customs, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, economic indicators and socio-political opportunities for the populations in general and women in particular. It is difficult to conceptualize a model to unify them under one value system. But in the midst of all these differences there is one constant factor that unites women from all over the world: their struggle to attain respect and dignity in the international arena and at the national level on the basis of equality so as to jointly preserve world peace and create an environment for ensuring a sustainable world order. This quest for dignity is also the common denominator for all women in Pakistan no matter what their ethnic, social or religious background. scriptures and now guaranteed legal protection under the constitution in all the countries of the world.

The issues facing women in Pakistan pose multiple challenges. While education, healthcare and income generation contribute to knowledge, physical health and more money, they do not necessarily create the conditions in which women, especially in the rural areas, are treated with respect and dignity. Society itself threatens to cast women into the wilderness/ vulnerability net if she strays from tradition or dares to venture out to forge a life for herself which is perceived as unconventional. The rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan since 2000 has seen a radical shift in the way society perceives women and women perceive each other. There is a subtle variation of the same in work places in the urban centres. Social protection therefore plays a very important role in allowing women the freedom to think without fear of judicial prosecution or societal persecution.

The devastating earthquake in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and parts of the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan in 2005, has added the dimension of disaster management, risk reduction and rebuilding lives with social, economic and gender-related challenges that were not envisaged before. Gender equality and empowerment of women play a key role in a land where substantial areas of its territory are vulnerable to tectonic activity with the potential for massive natural disasters that can increase the number of women in the vulnerability net which includes widows, orphans and the elderly as well as the disabled and the landless.

In recent times the attempt at Talibanization of the country through an obscurantist misinterpretation of religion by vested interest groups to gain control of society and impose stringent laws against the rights of women has further restricted the freedom of women, exposed them to violence and imperilled their lives. The number of women at risk has increased as a result of the war against terror and this makes social protection a very critical aspect of empowerment.

Social protection means providing legal protection to women, at home, in the work place and at different levels of engagement in society as well as in their social interactions within the community. This will help to bring change in social consciousness and sensitize society towards the issues faced by women.

While domestic violence is acknowledged more openly by women, their voices are muffled in instances where they are subjected to forced marriage, rape and harassment especially at work for fear of censure by society as well as the compulsions of poverty.

The  threat  and  use  of  violence  against  women  combined  with their economic dependence, traditional strictures and discriminatory legislation does not allow them the space to seek justice from the courts on the one hand and, on the other, the fear of persecution from society prevents them from exercising their rights. It is this palpable but silent and invisible pressure that allows society to violate the fundamental pledge in the constitution that guarantees equality between men and women. This perception of harassment without assurance of social support or the right to legal redress has psychological constraints which prevent women from voicing their independent views and holds them back from speaking out against the subtle ways through which their dignity is consistently infringed. This, in turn, whittles away their self- confidence and contributes to mental health problems thereby raising formidable barriers in the way of empowerment.

Women may be provided education and healthcare but this has to be accompanied by the creation of conditions under which they can live in dignity. Empowerment will remain a mere delusion if there is no  substantive change in the way society treats women. Dignity cannot be achieved without rights. The first step in this direction is through constitutional guarantees and the second is by sensitising society to the imperative of granting these rights reinforced by the conviction that their violation is unconscionable. Laws are man-made and their purpose is to guide people to do the right thing. The utopian assumption is that a society evolves to a stage where it censures all discriminatory acts as crimes of conscience and desists from committing them not from fear of punishment but from moral inability to live with injustice. Such a passive evolutionary approach can only prolong the anguish of women though their problems are in need of urgent redress.

When a society deprives a human being of his rights it deprives him of his dignity. Women are no different from men in this regard. Their disabilities grow after their rights are held back from them. Unfortunately this adds up to a circular argument where women are first denied equal opportunities, then kept away from active participation on the pretext of inadequate skills and finally held responsible for not playing a pro- active role in society.

For most of the six decades since the country’s independence, women in Pakistan have suffered due to neglect and a lack of political commitment as well as growth-oriented rather than equity-oriented economic policies. This, coupled with the wrong interpretation of the constitution, has resulted in the introduction of laws that violate the fundamental pledge in the constitution that guarantees equality between women and men. Consequently Pakistani women have continued to suffer as a result of the inequities of patriarchal structures, rigid orthodox norms and primitive traditions. Successive governments have tried to reform the discriminatory laws against women  but have only had mixed success in getting society to change itself. The quality and quantum of change are not satisfactory and women still remain a deprived segment of society.

Pakistani political parties with liberal credentials have tried to end the discrimination permitted under law. The first steps were taken in 1961 when the Family Law Ordinance was promulgated to ensure that women got their rights under Islam or at least those rights not disputed by the jurists. But rights go on being infringed despite constitutional injunctions to the contrary. The divorce laws continue to favour the husband insofar as he can divorce a wife against the injunction of the Qur’an. Furthermore, Qur’anic laws that favour women are not institutionalized. For instance, it is the duty of the husband to financially support his wife. If he fails to do that there is no law to call him to account.

In 2000 a Women’s Commission was set up under Justice Majida Rizvi. The Commission submitted its report in 2003 asking the government to do away with the Hudood laws, which, among other travesties, disqualify women as witnesses to a capital crime. Islamic reformists are in favour of amending these laws because their abolition will not contravene the spirit of Islamic tenets; but society in Pakistan is not yet willing to accept the recommendation.

The main issues impeding the emancipation of women in Pakistan are poverty, illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. From this stems the basis of discrimination against them in all other spheres which lead to acts of violence including honour killing, stripping them of dignity through economic subservience and making them victims of armed conflict and its multiple traumas, suffering from increased mortality of the girl child by way of neglect and most importantly by becoming psychologically dependent on notions perpetuated by vested interest groups that extol such virtues of womanhood that keep them subservient to men. In this context the challenge is more daunting as women are pitted against women. The mother still favours the boy child, has a subjective attitude towards her daughter-in-law and applies a different set of rules for girls and boys at home. The process of social discrimination starts at home – from the cradle – and is nurtured and sustained by women. Mothers take pride and instil a sense of superiority in boys and, in the process, sacrifice the education, health and nutrition of the girl child. This sense of security associated with men stems from women’s reliance on men as providers because agriculture still forms the basis of the country’s economy. The majority of women remain confined to domestic responsibilities which are labour intensive but non-monetized work.

However the fight for rights through the legislative process and through change in society should not be at the cost of sacrificing inherent feminine qualities. Equal rights should not mean reduction of men and women to uniformity of functions. Women must have rights that safeguard their difference from men. The way women relate to the world in which they live is inherently different from men. Women can only be satisfied with equal rights if their different sensibility is preserved.

Although it is possible for women to act like a man, especially in politics, nature gives women the ability to recreate the world differently. The various roles she plays as mother, wife, sister and daughter empower her with different kinds of capacities that the male-dominated world has only just begun to understand.

Men are naturally inclined to concepts based on ideas. There cannot be any compromise on the purity of an idea. Men have fought wars on the rigidity of their inviolable concepts. The entire Cold War period was devoted to a polarisation based on this intellectual concept.

After the Cold War men do not know much about a world based on relationships that bend and fluctuate, worsen and improve in a hiatus of guiding concepts. Perhaps the day of the woman has come. She has spent ages located in the middle of a grid of relationships that has taught her to endure and repair and at times manipulate for the good of her family. Today her success in the corporate world gives us an inkling of what she can do if her inherent difference from men is preserved and her rights restored to her.

There can only be an enduring change in the status of women when there is a paradigm shift in the way society perceives the role of women and women themselves rid their minds of gender prejudices and biased concepts. Laws alone are not enough to end discrimination; it is society that needs to change and most importantly it is women who need to change and treat their own gender with respect and dignity, equity and equality.