Unlovingly yours

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE world population is aging. So is Pakistan’s. In 1947, nearly four per cent of the population (1.8 million) was above sixty years of age. In the 1981 census, this percentage had risen to 6.9 (5.8 million). Life expectancy has also risen from 43 years in 1960 to 62 years today. This is not just due to the failing infant mortality rate. The fact is that people are living longer.

This longevity has far-reaching economic, social, health, employment and even political implications for the country. The dependency ratio has grown which is affecting the economy. The health delivery system is being called upon to cater more and more to geriatric patients, without this discipline even being recognized as such in our medical colleges. In elections, the voters who are 60 plus constitute a sizeable number and their views count for whatever they are worth.

Most palpable of all is the human dimension of the aging of populations. There are more octogenarians around today than ever before. But this has basically been a case of adding years to life and not necessarily that of adding life to those extra years. In other words, longevity has not always been accompanied with good health. With no doctors trained specifically to examine and treat the elderly, the health care they receive is not always of the best kind.

Traditionally, the care of the aged has been the responsibility of the family. But new trends have emerged to transform family structures which have reduced the capacity of this institution to serve as the safety net for the less privileged. The old and the young, the sick and the unemployed have conventionally found sanctuary in the extended family. In days of yore, old people – even childless widows /widowers – could expect to be provided shelter by nephews and nieces in a household comprising as many as three generations.

The emergence of the nuclear family has changed the pattern of life enormously. Only elderly parents are now readily accommodated by their offspring. One of the sons – the eldest, the favourite or the one with the most cooperative wife – usually takes the responsibility of the aged parents. There are still cases where the generation gap is so wide that interpersonal conflicts makes it impossible  for aged parents to be accommodated under the same roof as any of their children.

The institution of the family as the shelter for the aging is gradually being eroded by several, not necessarily related factors. First is the small size of the modern family which is the desirable norm today and is a direct offshoot of socio-economic, health and demographic compulsions. With fewer children, who were once regarded as old age insurance, the elderly have limited options.

There are further restrictions by the migration phenomenon which has resulted in many young people leaving the country. Sons go abroad in search of greener pastures. Daughters are wedded to the green card holder. The empty nest has left the parents with no source of support. The choice of migration is not always available to them. Visas are not readily granted. Many of those who are allowed to settle with their children in foreign climes find it impossible to adjust to the strange lifestyle of an alien society.

Others are fortunate to have a child or two who have stayed back in the country and welcome their aged parents in their homes. But as more and more women go out to work, many aged people are left at home to fend for themselves in the day. This has not been without its problems especially when age and illness have made them feeble and dependent on younger persons.

Women, who have conventionally been the care givers in the home for the young and the old alike, are facing a new challenge. Whether they are daughters or daughters-in-law, women are the ones who have looked after the aging, tending to their needs for food, nursing and emotional support. Previously they shared this responsibility with other female members in a joint family. Those who are working women and have coped with the dual demands of motherhood and a career in their younger days, are now being called upon to adjust to the multiple roles demanded by their career and care givers for elderly parents. In many cases they additionally have to cope with their own advancing age and that of their spouse.

With longevity now quite a common phenomenon, the care of the elderly has emerged as a major issue in our society. Given our socio-cultural values which hold the elderly in great veneration, it is difficult for people to admit openly that there is a problem here which is being shoved under the carpet.

There is a need to address it pragmatically and dispassionately if a solution is to be found. By refusing to admit it, we are simply making life difficult for the elderly and their care givers. Just a few true cases should provide an occasion for soul searching:

An old lady who is 90, stays with her son and daughter-in-law who are themselves in their sixties. She requires round-the-clock care. There is no one else to provide it. As a result the daughter-in-law, who does not enjoy very sound health herself, is literally house-bound which creates human problems of a serious nature.

An elderly widower has both his children, a son and a daughter, living abroad. He was refused a visa by the British – even a vistor’s visa – and now he moves around from one relative’s place to another. In his old age he cannot enjoy the security and stability of having a place he can call his permanent home.

*An elderly incapacitated widow whose children are abroad depends on the attendants provided by some of the agencies operating in Karachi. For a few days, the attendants did not turn up and there was no one to look after her and she was rescued when the neighbours finding no signs of life broke into the apartment. The daughter had to rush back to attend to the emergency.

*One old widower, who was not keeping good health and was lying alone, died suddenly and his body was discovered a day later when a daughter who would phone him every morning to keep in touch got no response and rushed to his house to check on her father.

These cases focus on only one dimension of aging, namely, the problem of boarding and care giving to the geriatrics. There are other issues as well. The health problems of the aged are no less serious and the medical profession in Pakistan has so far not focused on them. There are no nursing homes/wards in hospitals specially for them and nurses are not trained to take care of elderly patients.

There are also the problems which only an aged person knows, namely, those of acute loneliness and lack of recreation and company of the people of their own age. How can their lives be made more meaningful? Not much has been done in this regard. Maybe Leon Trotsky was right when he wrote, “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that happen to a man.” We are still unprepared for it.

Source: Dawn 22 Oct 1998


Dawn 22 Oct 1998


A ploy to send the women home?

By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE are obscurantist elements in our society who would love to send the women packing back to their homes. They have tried it before but failed. Remember Dr. Israr Ahmed and his preachings that it was a sin for a woman to work outside the home. How the woman power of Karachi had to be mobilized to make the ‘venerable’ doctor ineffective. Women mustered courage to collect signatures against what Dr Israr had to say. Woman power won and the number of women in the workforce has grown. Continue reading “A ploy to send the women home?”

School tuition centre

By Zubeida Mustafa

A mother whose teenaged children are studying in one of the most prestigious schools of Karachi spends her entire afternoon ferrying them from one tutor to another for private coaching.

Apart from the thousands she is spending on her children’s school fees she pays exorbitant amounts to the tutors. This is a story which is not new. It is being repeated in practically every home with school/college going children in almost all strata of society with minor variations. What is intriguing is that the tuition syndrome is catching the child at the early age of five and onwards.

Why is this phenomenon becoming so common? You find coaching centres proliferating all over, while tutors who are not so visible are equally ubiquitous. You go to a bakery to buy bread and there you come across a handwritten notice announcing the services of a tutor coaching students at home for various classes in different subjects. Evidently these tutors are in demand, otherwise they would not have been coming up so fast. Considering the fact that many of those conducting the classes are teachers from reputable schools, one suspects that they also play a role in creating this demand. Continue reading “School tuition centre”

Role of private schools

By Zubeida  Musstafa

THE education policy announced in March devotes one whole chapter to the private sector. Nevertheless, it fails to clarify some basic issues relating to the privately managed schools and institutions of higher learning. The ambivalence which has marked the education sector persists.

More importantly, the policy reflects a love-hate relationship between the government and the private sector. The authorities grudgingly concede that the private sector is  indispensable. Continue reading “Role of private schools”

A man of sense and sensibility



By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE appears to be more intolerance in Islam because the Muslim world is in the throes of change

Dressed in his white khaddar kurta and pyjamas, sporting a graying stubble for a beard, Mr Asghar Ali Engineer could be any of the countless Bohris that one comes across in Karachi. But behind his simple and unassuming exterior is a sturdy and sharp mind that is fully responsive to the political, social and economic problems faced by the Muslims in India. During his recent visit to Karachi, Mr. Engineer spent a whole forenoon with Dawn taking about a wide range of Issues.

He came across as an enlightened, rational and level-headed scholar whose interpretation of Islam offers hope of some sanity emerging from the bleak scenario that makes the Muslim world today. At a time when the lines between the liberal/secular and the orthodox camps have been sharply drawn, a meeting with Asghar Ali Engineer was most reassuring. He knows the ideology but speaks the language of the secularists. A well-known social scientist (that is how he described himself) from India, Mr Engineer has founded two research institutions in Bombay which he heads. One is the Institute of Islamic Studies which was set up in 1982 and the other is the more recently-established Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (1993). Continue reading “A man of sense and sensibility”

New policy lacks credibility

By Zubeida Musta

ONE has to be either a diehard optimist or incredibly simplistic to believe that the education policy announced on March 27 will bring about a moral and social transformation in Pakistan through educational reforms. The major problem in the policy is that of credibility. The government has so far done nothing to establish its bonafides in the promotion of education. There has been a lot of loud talk about the need to enhance the literacy rate and universalize primary education. But is there anything new about that? All the six education policies which have been announced since 1947 have listed these as their basic goals. Yet we have the dubious distinction of being the last but one most illiterate country in South Asia with the lowest primary school enrolment ration in the region. How can one be certain that the present government’s performance will be any different?

Continue reading “New policy lacks credibility”

Can it be implemented?

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT is a strange coincidence that two important documents pertaining to education were released in Pakistan in March 1998 within a span of a few days. One was the report titled Human Development in South Asia 1998: The Education Challenge prepared by Dr Mahbubul Haq and Khadija Haq and published by the Human Development Centre, Islamabad, and the Oxford University Press (Pakistan). The other was the Pakistan government’s education policy prepared by the Federal Ministry of Education.

Continue reading “Can it be implemented?”

Listening in

By Zubeida Mustafa

THEY were women from three generations, their ages ranging from twelve months to fifty odd years. As they met in the office of Dr Tahira Aleem, the audiologist at the Ida Rieu Centre for the Deaf and Blind, I could see that the infant girl’s future hinged on that crucial session. She was profoundly hearing impaired and since she had never heard any sounds since birth she could not speak either. As she snuggled in her mother’s lap, with an endearing expression in her eyes and quite oblivious to her  surroundings, the infant appeared to be at peace in her own world of silence. But how long would this peace last? Without the capacity to communicate, she would grow up severely handicapped in her shell of utter isolation. Continue reading “Listening in”

Their voices heard

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT IS located in the heart of Karachi in one of the noisiest and  most congested downtown areas near the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum at what was Purani Numaish. Once you enter the gates of Ida Rieu School for the Deaf and Blind you are in a different world altogether. It is spacious, quiet and reasonably green. Continue reading “Their voices heard”

Always on the road

By Zubeida Mustafa

MUNIRA GULZAR wanted to be a nurse when she passed out of school. Instead she became a teacher and has loved every minute of it. Those were the times in the early fifties when most girls did not dream of a career. But to young Munira it was inconceivable that she should not work. So even before she had completed her education she started teaching in a school. Since her family was very conservative, there was so much opposition to her taking up a job. But determined as she was, she managed to persuade her father to let her work. Continue reading “Always on the road”