By Zubeida Mustafa
AS a new government enters the corridors of power in Sindh it will find itself empowered with an innovative and sensible document that lays down the gender guidelines for official policies in the province. It was a smart move on the part of the Sindh Women Development Department to launch its Provincial Policy for Women Empowerment two days before the elections.
The event was timely because such moves pertaining to women’s rights require a lot of support and backing from official quarters in Pakistan. This support was fully available. It could not have been otherwise considering that the women and human rights’ portfolio in the interim government was held by an inveterate champion of woman’s rights, Anis Haroon, whose role in the women’s movement has been phenomenal.
The policy document adopts a wise strategy. It lays down the framework within which all government departments are expected to operate. Instead of taking the circuitous route of knocking on the door of every department, it lays down guiding principles for every department to follow. Thus it hopes to “institutionalise women’s empowerment and create an enabling environment so that women have equal rights and opportunities for the realisation of their full potential in all spheres”.
Another significant objective of this document is to “mainstream the women’s perspective in all development work and governance”.
All these are worthy aims and one wishes the authors well in the achievement of their objectives. The problem with our patriarchal society is that people, especially policymakers, even the women-friendly ones, have to be sensitised to women’s — as well as children’s — needs and their perspectives.
Many years ago, retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, who chaired the Commission of Inquiry for Women in 1996-97, told me that until then he had never realised that women had another perspective on various legal matters.
He had worked in high positions in the law ministry and believed that he was ensuring justice for all. It was only when he worked with various women activists such as Asma Jehangir and Shehla Zia on the women’s inquiry report that the reality of gender complexities dawned on him and he came to realise how a seemingly just law could hurt a woman if her perspective was not taken into consideration.
The Sindh women department’s document on women empowerment should be an eye-opener for many bureaucrats especially those who are responsible for drawing up policies on poverty alleviation, economic empowerment, education, health, access to justice, enhancing female role in politics and strengthening the mechanisms designed to facilitate women’s empowerment.
This document has a strong positive aspect. It seeks to work scientifically. The government is asked to generate and consolidate statistics, data and research pertaining to women in the formal and informal economy, education and other areas.
It specifically asks for “accurate gender disaggregated” data which is essential to establish the inequities women suffer. It is such factual information that is needed to rectify the oppressive situation of women. It should also help in advocacy when activists are armed with solid information that statistics provide.
If this trend can be followed up nationally, it would help to ascertain the economic worth of women’s informal and unpaid labour which is not counted in calculating the GDP of the country although many economists have suggested that ignoring the female contribution to the national economy distorts results.
However, there is an important omission in this vital document. It was Anis Haroon who pointed out in her speech on the occasion of the launching ceremony that birth certificates do not carry the mother’s name. This is the case with many certificates that are basic for identification purposes, such as passports, in which the mother’s name is not given where the parentage is required. A person is recognised by his father’s name.
Retired Justice Majida Razvi, who was the chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women in 2002-05, has been a vocal advocate of the mother’s name being listed in all identity documents, be it the birth certificate, CNIC or passport.
When William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet England did not have an identity card system — even today it does not. Hence the bard could get away with saying: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”
But today the rose has to be called a rose. Majida Rizvi, who is now on the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation’s evaluation committee set up under the Organ Transplantation Act, points out the legal and social implications of not clearly identifying the mother of a card holder. According to Razvi, it is simply a retrogressive mindset which prevents policymakers from acting otherwise. For them a woman is invisible and should remain so.
“But just look at the practical repercussions it has. When I have to evaluate the relationship between a prospective organ donor (mother) and a recipient (son) I have no way of confirming this relationship legally because the CNIC does not give the mother’s name although it is there in Nadra’s database. The poor man has to go to Nadra, spend Rs500 and procure the family registration certificate which gives his mother’s name.”
One hopes all the provinces will follow Sindh’s example and frame policy guidelines for women’s empowerment. One also hopes that the authorities issuing CNIC, passports, birth and death certificates also show some understanding of this issue and unveil the mother.