We live in fractious times. In the politics of polarisation, it is easy to assume that our point of view is the correct one. But every organization, every group, every family, and every nation must embrace open communication in order to develop and thrive. Discourse with all stakeholders is critical.
Unfortunately, the longer a nation fails to engage with its stakeholders, the more negative both sides become, creating less space for growth. We have seen this in the Punjab Assembly, where legislation passed only because the rules were suspended for this purpose. Normal practice and part of the functioning of the legislative houses is to have space for debate, discourse, analysis and critical thinking in order to effectively legislate for the people. Sadly, the government, by suspending the rules to pass legislation, is nullifying the assemblies. There is no engagement with the stakeholders and no growth. Policy making no longer is substantive.
The world over as in Pakistan, 50 percent of the stakeholders are women. There have been numerous studies that show what happens when there is a failure on the part of those responsible for the welfare of women to empower them.
An organization must have clear mechanisms to identify, assess and manage its stakeholders. Pakistan’s women are its key stakeholders. Empowering women spurs productivity and economic growth, even if we ignore the fact that gender equality is a basic human right. The government has failed to engage with the women of Punjab. The Violence Against Women Centre was denied enough funding to operate in the letter and spirit of Shehbaz Sharif‘s vision. The Women on Wheels program empowering women to drive motorcycles has been scrapped. The Zewar-e-Taleem program which educated 460,000 girls of Southern Punjab has also been stopped.
The Punjab Commission on the Status of Women was created for the very emergent need to identify, assess and manage the myriad issues and challenges the women of Punjab face. This government removed a very capable non-partisan commissioner and have yet to appoint another due to which the full functioning of the organization has been compromised. The core team of the Commission has five positions, out of which two are now vacant and the remaining three are being held by men.
If that wasn’t enough, the gender parity report is no longer issued by the government. As of March 2021, Pakistan ranked 153 out of 156 nations in gender parity. It has slipped down to the ranks of the worst four nations for gender parity according to the World Economic Forum.
Communicating with and addressing the needs of women has never been more important. With the Covid-19 lockdown, violence against women has risen around the world. Pakistan is not immune, with more cases of violence being registered during this time. The sad truth though is that most of our girls and women live daily in lockdown-like situations, with little recourse to help. The cases of domestic and other violence that come to society’s attention are just the tip of the iceberg. Last year, there were 3,700 cases of rape, 456 cases of gang rape, not to mention the thousands of cases of female kidnapping and honour killings. Pakistan ranked as the sixth most dangerous country for women globally. According to a Bureau of Statistics survey, more than 50 percent of women respondents of one province felt that their husbands had the right to hit them.
To give one indicator of how small is the value placed upon women, one may simply look at the Punjab budget allocations. The Punjab women’s budget for 2021 is PKR 500 million. That is equivalent to what the Punjab women’s budget was in 2015 six years prior. One must note this allocation with an understanding that the inflation rate in Pakistan is soaring and the Pakistani rupee is plummeting in value. It is only then that one can understand the reality of what PKR 500 million may achieve. On the other hand, this allocation is a measly percentage of the amount the government spent on wheat and sugar as a supplementary allocation. The need for which arose due to mismanagement.
Any organization with low engagement and communication with stakeholders is a failure. The previous government announced initiatives such as legal reform, IT and SME training, paid skill development etc for women. After the change in government, we have seen only one significant endeavour. In July 2021 the Essential Service Package was announced with a focus on social services for women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence. Prior to this the Women’s Department’s list of major achievements for 2019-2020 highlighted having celebrated International Women’s Day, International Working Women’s Day and International Day of the Girl Child. Celebrating these days is significant but the fundamentals of creating a relationship are formed via a discourse. International day celebrations seem to be smoke and mirrors unless supported with firm foundations of investment, discourse and debate.
We are moving backwards, not forwards, and we are letting women down by not dedicating resources, time, commitment, or effort to understanding and eradicating the challenges they face. This will only be possible when the government recognizes, invests and opens a discourse with all its stakeholders.