M M Ashraf
THE movement for rights of women and gender equality started by Evelyn Cunningham, an activist of the Civil Rights Movement in USA during the twentieth century, finally found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 under the auspices of the UN. One of those fundamental rights stresses the need for gender equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex and also unequivocally rejects the notion of an individual subjecting the other individual to torture, cruelty, degrading treatment or punishment. Consequently it is universally recognized that the empowerment of women and gender equality are absolutely imperative for socio-economic development of a country, building stable, democratic societies, safeguarding human rights, furthering international peace and security, growing vibrant market economies, addressing pressing health and education challenges. The degree of women empowerment and gender equality determines the difference between the developed and developing nations. Any nation aspiring to change its economic fortunes and building a harmonious society needs to adopt this inclusive approach.
It is easier said than done, particularly in the developing countries with social inequalities, traditional prejudices against women, urban and rural divide and the lack of opportunities for women to become part of the national working force. Nevertheless, as they say where there is will there is a way. Successive governments in Pakistan have been exhibiting commitment to women empowerment and gender equality by taking administrative and legal measures to ensure that the women joining the work force were provided a dignified work environment where they enjoyed the respect and recognition of their male partners. Due to these persistent efforts, Pakistan today can rightly boast of being a progressive entity where women are making their contribution in every field of national life. The importance that Pakistan attaches to women development and gender equality can be gauged from the fact that it declared 22 December as National Day of Working Women in 2010 purported to acknowledge and recognize their role in the nation building, sensitizing the society about their dignity and to encourage their participation in every field of work.
To make sure that the women could concentrate on their work at their work places without any fear and harassment by their male partners or bosses, the government promulgated Harassment at Work Act 2010. Ombudsman secretariats at national and provincial level are also contributing to providing harassment free and friendly environment to working women, by addressing their complaints expeditiously. The PTI government in line with the vision of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Manifesto of the Party is also according top priority to emancipation of Pakistani women. It has appointed a dynamic lady Dr. Shireen Mazari to head the Human Rights Ministry which deals with all issues related to human rights with greater focus on rights of women and the measures to strengthen women empowerment and gender equality.
Dr Mazari is a very vocal proponent of the rights of women and gender equality and has an avowed commitment to that cause. Accordingly, in regards to facilitating the working women the government is bringing an enactment on maternity and paternity leave. The bill has already been approved by the Senate Committee for Finance unanimously, a few days ago. After its passage by Parliament it would become a law. The bill will cover employees of the public and private establishments. Under this law female employees will be granted a paid leave for 180 days upon the birth of their first child which will be reduced to 120 and 90 days upon the birth of their second and third child respectively. Another law titled The Enforcement of Women’s property rights Bill 2019 enacted by Parliament is meant to protect and secure the rights of ownership and possession of women in properties. The bill authorizes Ombudsman to receive complaints of women deprived of ownership of possession of properties. It will pass corrective orders to the Deputy Commissioner or any state functionary including police to restore possession of ownership.These are unprecedented initiatives which conform to international norms and practices; surely a step forward to progressiveness.
To empower women economically the government has allocated 50% share for them in the Prime Minister Youth Loan Scheme which reflects its commitment and dedication to the cause of women empowerment and gender equality. The banking system has also launched various loans schemes for short and medium terms where women were given the opportunity to participate in promotion and development of economic and agricultural sector. Benazir Income Support Programme provides a unique forum for empowerment to the poorest women by redefining their lives and adding dignity, empowerment and meaning to their lives. In view of the growing number of women joining different professions and public departments the Ministry of Human Rights has been running extensive awareness campaigns besides arranging training and capacity building programmes for lawyers, police and prosecutors to sensitize them regarding their attitude and behaviour towards their women colleagues.
Other Public forums supplementing the efforts of the Human Rights Ministry in regards to rights of women include, National Commission on Human Rights, National and Provincial Commission on Status of Women. The government is also coordinating and collaborating with USAID in regards to women empowerment and gender equality-related issues. There are several other initiatives that have been taken in the past to provide congenial working environment to working women including National Policy for Development and Empowerment of Women 2002 and National Plan of Action 1998. Punjab Women Empowerment Packages 2012, 2014 and 2016 comprise multiple reforms in legal, administrative and institutional spheres while providing new initiatives to safeguard women rights. Punjab also increased employment quota for women to 15%, granted 3 years age relaxation, provided an additional chance of transfer to women to the place of residence of spouse in case of marriage and other infrastructure to encourage women to join public and private sector . The government of Sindh established a Sales & Display Resource Centre, Day Care Centre, media cells, women Development Complexes and hostels to provide opportunities and safe working environment to working Women
Similar Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa’s Women Empowerment Policy (PWEP) 2015, youth policy 2016, help lines, working women hostels, vocational centres are important tools to increase ratio of working women in the province. In the aftermath of 18th Constitutional Amendment, Provincial Governments on their own are taking several legislative, administrative and institutional steps to safeguard rights of women and creating opportunities for them to work and contribute to the economy of Pakistan as vibrant workers. On the basis of what has been done so far and the measures in the pipeline it can be safely concluded that Pakistan was moving in the right direction in bridging the gender gap.
—The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.