First published in Aman Ki Asha, The News, 29 June 2011
The news didn’t cause much of a stir. After all, it wasn’t a buzz about Bollywood beauties — say Katrina, Kareena or even Veena — or about an Afia Siddiqui, or even a Baba Ramdev or some other ‘hot’ icon that triggers off all-day media coverage. This news report was all about the faceless, nameless women, not one, not two, but millions. But who cares, when there is no nametag, or brand associated with them? Perhaps not many will guess what I am referring to.
Perhaps ignorance is bliss.
I noticed a few tweets, even fewer facebook statuses, a handful blogs that made a passing mention of this ‘news’ which perhaps for many was not much newsworthy in Pakistan, although on the Indian side it was mentioned in quite a few articles and caused relatively more concern.
The news item in question was the recent Thomson Reuters Foundation report according to which Pakistan and India were ranked third and fourth respectively as the world’s most unsafe places for women. If it wasn’t for war-torn Afghanistan and Congo, we would have topped the list. The fifth country in the club was Somalia.
Is it not ironic that India and Pakistan, which also belong to the elite club of the world’s ‘nuclear powers’, also find membership in a club of countries like Afghanistan, Congo, Somalia, and that too on the issue of mistreating women?
The Thomson Reuters Foundation surveyed 213 experts from around the globe, on the five continents, to decide the ranking of the most dangerous nations based on six parameters — health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking.
According to the report some 90 percent of Pakistani women are subjected to domestic violence, a further tragedy being that not even a quarter of them are aware that what they go through is a crime and that there are laws to protect them. They are taught from childhood to bear the marital violence and pressures as culturally appropriate or in the name of religion. Talking in terms of numbers in a populated country like Pakistan, this means a huge figure, to the tune of 80 million or so.
The situation is not much different in India where, despite all the development and booming economy, 100 million poor women are subjected to sex trafficking. The myth is that most of them go into the sex trade voluntarily; the dark truth is that most are lured or kidnapped, and forced into it. The target girl is from the low castes, from the poorest of the poor families — families that can ‘dispense’ with a missing daughter (not a son) and do not make much effort to track her down after she goes missing. What the report did not mention is that 40 percent women trafficked are minor girls.
In both India and Pakistan, rape, dowry deaths, acid attacks, kidnapping, and domestic violence continue unabated and gender inequality persists, although the degrees may vary. And in both, only a handful of such crimes get reported and even fewer are punished.
Both countries can boast of having elected women prime ministers to office decades ago, but in both tens of millions of women today, lead lives worse than cattle. The health and education statistics from India and Pakistan speak volumes for the plight of their women. Their female literacy rates are 54 percent and 35 percent respectively (compare Iran: 73 percent and Sri Lanka: 90 percent) while maternal mortality rates are 230 and 260 per 100,000 respectively (Iran: 37 and Sri Lanka: 60) (Source: http://www.mrdowling.com/800literacyfemale.html).
These statistics follow reports of a 12 percent rise in the defence budgets in both countries. India and Pakistan already spend about 18.6 percent and 23.1 percent, respectively, of their allocated annual budget on military expenditures. Compare this to their budgets on health — 3.5 percent and 13 percent — and on education, 12.7 percent and 7.8 percent respectively (Source: http://www.visualeconomics.com/how-countries-spend-their-money/).
What is the point of harbouring illusions about being secure from the ‘enemy’ neighbour, when one’s own house remains unsafe for millions of one’s own women?
For its part, Pakistan is embroiled in a war situation rife with extremism and violence — but India has a booming economy, and is considered part of the BRIC club (Brazil, Russia, India and China, all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development). What will it take to understand that the key to a real development lies in three words: ‘INVEST IN GIRLS’.
Investing in nuclear warheads for “deterrence” is a poor investment. They shall never be used.
But investing in girls’ education and health will bring phenomenal returns, going a long way towards improving the social and health indicators of the region. The link of women education and empowerment to population control and reduction in poverty is well documented.
According to the WHO website: “There are several compelling benefits associated with girls’ education, which include the reduction of child and maternal mortality, improvement of child nutrition and health, lower fertility rates, enhancement of women’s domestic role and their political participation, improvement of the economic productivity and growth, and protection of girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse and exploitation. Girls’ education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments, yielding both private and social benefits that accrue to individuals, families, and society at large. Girls’ education and the promotion of gender equality in education are vital to development, and policies and actions that do not address gender disparities miss critical development opportunities.”
Perhaps the key to the peace and prosperity of the region lies in prioritising in the empowerment of the women through education and better health, rather than through piling up arms. That might also save us from the international embarrassments like this.
The real fight that the two neighbours, India and Pakistan, desperately need to fight is not with each other, but together — for peace, prosperity, and women’s development.
Dr Ilmana Fasih is gynecologist and health activist of Indian origin, married to a Pakistani
Wednesday, June 29, 2011