When women are worst sufferers

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

FOUR days after the devastating earthquake in Azad Kashmir and the NWFP, the UNFPA released its annual report, State of the World Population 2005, which focused on gender equality. The earthquake was a compelling pointer to the drastic implications of a high population growth rate for women and children.

More than half of the 76,000 killed or the several hundred thousands injured by the earthquake were children. As someone poignantly put it, a whole generation has been destroyed.

That is not the end of the story. The CNN reported some time ago that there are tens of thousands of pregnant women among the earthquake survivors who are expected to deliver their babies in the next month or so. The unborn would not have escaped the trauma their mothers suffered. It is only much later that we will know how the earthquake affected them.

According to the UNFPA’s report, Pakistan’s population stands at a robust 158 million and at the present rate it will shoot up to 304 million by the year 2050. This is not shocking if you remember that the average population growth rate in Pakistan is 2.1 per cent, which is more than the average for the less developed regions (1.4 per cent). This will plainly affect the country’s plan to reduce poverty by half by 2015 as envisaged by the millennium development goals (MDG). The MDGs seek universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; ensuring environmental sustainability; the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and a global partnership for development between the rich and the poor.

This year’s report links success in achieving these goals with gender equality and reproductive health. The UNFPA is right in its assessment. After all, if nearly half the population in any country is to be denied equal rights and opportunities, it will be reflected in the level of prosperity and development in that society. Besides a very important factor in this situation is that a woman who is empowered by the removal of discriminatory burdens uses her gains not just for herself alone. She reinvests them in the welfare of her family and children.

That goes to show how important it is to provide equal opportunities for women to encourage them to join the national mainstream. Have we done that? The UNFPA report provides the answer. A country where only 38 per cent women are literate compared with 65 per cent men is, needless to say, treating its women rather shabbily. Since education for girls is perceived as being the key goal that propels a country towards the other seven MDGs, its significance should not be underestimated.

UNFPA’s report says, “Educational attainment increases women’s income-earning potential, reduces maternal and infant mortality and improves reproductive health overall. It is associated with lower rates of HIV.

Educated girls are more likely to delay marriage and childbearing, and instead acquire skills to improve economic prospects for themselves and their families. The benefits of girls’ education also lead to better health and education for the next generation.”

Another goal that is integrated with the others is that of providing reproductive health to women. This is a theme running through the MDGs because it has a direct bearing on all of them. But equally pertinent is the need for fertility reduction which intriguingly was not spelt out in the MDGs in clear terms. Werner Fornos, the outgoing chairman of the Population Institute of Washington, believes that this wasn’t a case of oversight. “The reasons were both religious and political — an effort to placate voodoo evangelists and rightwing politicians in the United States,” Fornos observes.

Pakistan looks unlikely to achieve the millennium goals. And it is not the earthquake that has caused a setback. It is the attitude of our society towards women that is hampering our progress towards these goals. The most shocking is our failure to lower fertility rates, which have a direct bearing on the quality of a woman’s life. The average number of children a woman is calculated to have in her reproductive years is four, when replacement level fertility rate envisages 2.1.

Although the government and the NGOs are making an all-out effort to give a boost to the population programme and spread the contraceptive services as far and wide as possible, it is not making the desired impact. The simple reason is that women still don’t enjoy the same esteem and status as men. Had it not been so, why would parents with two daughters still want a male offspring? Because he would be the bearer of the family name and would protect the landed estate.

Even before the natural disaster struck in October, the status of women in Pakistan was dismal. The earthquake has made it worse. In a chapter titled, “Women and Young People in Humanitarian Crises” the State of World Population , 2005 (that was incidentally written before October 8) it is observed that women survivors of natural disasters usually bear the heaviest burden of relief and reconstruction, since they are the primary caretakers for other survivors and their responsibilities are increased by the loss of husbands and livelihoods. Yet relief assistance doesn’t address gender specific needs.

The report captures the crisis in Pakistan when it states, “The vulnerability of girls and women to exploitation, trafficking and abuse has largely been ignored, as have their needs for pregnancy-related care, sanitary supplies and locally appropriate clothing. The distribution of emergency assistance has often been managed by and delivered to men without attention to whether women and their dependents will benefit.”

We hope that this aspect of the relief and reconstruction effort will be addressed with sensitivity. At present, this great tragedy seems to have made no difference to the male chauvinistic attitude vis-a-vis women. How else would you explain the angry reaction of a man when a physician touched his injured wife’s wrist to check her pulse. Then there is the case of the men who have let it be known that their women will continue to stay in their shattered houses and die of the cold rather than venture outside.