VIEW: Women and the PPP –Sherry Rehman -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

VIEW: Women and the PPP –Sherry Rehman

Despite the limited time the PPP governments had, their role in pro-actively pursuing a pro-women agenda is acknowledged even today by independent organisations that work with public sector bodies on gender mainstreaming projects.

Ms Rafia Zakaria wrote an article called ‘BB and Pakistani women’ (Daily Times, September 8, 2007) which raises some key questions about the prospects of improving women’s lives in case Ms Benazir Bhutto comes back to run the country. This article seeks to address her queries as well as quibbles.

While speculation about the future governmental set-up continues, increased media attention coupled with an excessive information camouflage has blurred a number of realities associated with Ms Bhutto and the PPP. Ms Zakaria’s analysis of Ms Bhutto’s agenda for women seems to have fallen victim to the same trend. This view ignores a number of realities that mark Ms Bhutto’s two prime ministerial terms.

Anybody who writes about the PPP’s performance in the 1990s should bear in mind three facts. First, Ms Bhutto came to power through the democratic route, and will always choose that path. A democratic system obliges the executive to work together with all other organs of the state while making and implementing decisions. Yet, despite the constraints of a coalition government, it was the PPP under the leadership of Ms Bhutto which introduced the first bill against honour killings in the Senate, only to find it defeated by its own allies.

It was the PPP that initiated the process of dismantling the Hudood Ordinances bit by bit, via an executive order as well as acts of parliament in 1996, when whipping was abolished as a punishment and all women booked under the Hudood Ordinances were released and rehabilitated. Ms Bhutto’s government also instituted the National Commission on the Status of Women under Nasir Aslam Zahid, which paved the way for the Hudood Ordinances repeal debate.

Second, in 1988, the country was reeling from the autocratic rule of General Zia-ul Haq, who had instituted the worst human rights regime ever experienced by Pakistan. Even in those difficult days, the PPP was at the frontlines of the struggle to reverse the draconian laws introduced by Zia, its membership on the streets swelling the ranks of the new women’s groups that had come up in resistance to the reactionary politics of the General.

And, third, it was the PPP again in 2002 that, with the specific backing of Ms Bhutto, introduced the first legislation to completely repeal the Hudood Ordinances. In fact, it was the PPP’s constant pressure through private members’ bills that led to the government finally responding with a Women’s Bill, which again was steered and amended in committee by the PPP. As most will recall, the party made history by voting on issue with the government when all others voted against, while the treasury benches had 44 votes absent.

Despite the limited time PPP governments had, their role in pro-actively pursuing a pro-women agenda is acknowledged even today by independent organisations that work with public sector bodies on gender mainstreaming projects. It was Ms Bhutto’s government that set up a Human Rights Ministry to watch and investigate human rights abuses, particularly those against women.

In February 1996, in a move acknowledged by all women’s activists in the country, and against a cacophony of strong right-wing pressures, Pakistan ratified the United NationsÂ’ Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This was a major achievement of the PPP government on international covenants related to the rights of women, and to this day is used as a critical benchmark by rights activists when measuring government performance in this area.

Much is made today, as it should be, of the paucity of crisis centres for women in Pakistan. The first such centres were established by the PPP government under Ms Bhutto. Legal aid centres and burn units in hospitals were instituted in response to domestic violence complaints for the first time in Pakistan, and as the government was dismissed, a Domestic Violence Bill fell through.

Before the government could get dismissed, however, the largest credit programme was established to facilitate easy credit for women, a full-fledged Women’s Bank and the first vocational training programme for women were set up. Targeting public health as a poor woman’s burden, the PPP government set up the largest public sector programme of Lady Health Workers, which established a vast network of 133,000 health practitioners to service rural and urban households in Pakistan, exclusively to cater to women’s health needs as well as to address reproductive health issues.

These women health workers today constitute all that is left of Pakistan’s public health sector backbone, and is touted by all governments as Pakistan’s showpiece health programme. This is not all. After the institution of a job quota for women in public service, which was quietly reversed by the current government, women judges were appointed in High Courts and District Courts, and a network of women’s police stations was established.

For the nay-sayers who say a female head of government is shackled with the problem of appearing too progressive and ends up with an appeasement agenda, the PPP under Ms Bhutto has never blinked when confronted with women’s issues as sold by the religious right as a private matter. The state intervened in all sectors possible for women and it will again. In Pakistan, even sports and culture are arenas fraught with reactionary discourse. Yet, under the PPP government, a Women’s Sports Board was established to promote women’s participation in sports and prepare Pakistani women athletes for international competitions. The First Islamic Women’s Games were held in Pakistan.

Higher political participation for women is credited rightly to the current government, but it was the PPP government which was the first to move an amendment in the constitution for the restoration of women seats in National and Provincial Assemblies when it was dismissed in 1996. The party remains committed to a minimum 33% quota for women in all legislatures.

But here is why a civilian, elected government with grassroots support is needed to bring change. The problem is that even piecemeal legal reforms can never really take root in a climate of fear, where the rule of law is every day institutionally subverted by a military dictator.

Under democratic dispensations, no matter how dysfunctional they were, no journalists were killed for telling the truth, and no women rape victims were shockingly cast as “opportunists” by the head of state for seeking public sympathy in order to emigrate, as was done in the case of Dr Shazia Khalid.

Under the PPP government, no churches could be burned down and no religious minorities persecuted with the kind of impunity we see today. Last but not least, Mukhtaran Mai could never be prevented from leaving the country for a womenÂ’s conference.
Source: Daily Times