Pakistan: Women see red over World Bank Report: Print E-mail

"Pakistan Country Gender Assessment 2005 ­ - Bridging the Gender Gap ­ - Opportunities and Challenges"

  Pakistan Sunday June 11, 2006 - Jumadi-ul-Awwal 14, 1427

WB watches women with eyes half shut
By Anjum Niaz
Each time a woman in Pakistan is murdered, mutilated or raped, there is dead silence! Pin drop silence! We freeze. We are shell-shocked. We don't know how to react. More importantly, we don’t know what to do.

We have the World Bank (WB). We have the UN agencies for women. We have local NGOs. We have state-sponsored centres of high research. We have APWA. We have ANAA in America. We have WAF. We have Aurat Foundation. We have Shirkatgah. We have influential NGOs abroad. We have Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. We have Asma Jehangir. And we have a women’s ministry! Wait... we also have Mukhtarian Mai, a modern-day heroine and the only Pakistani woman to have rocked the present military dictatorship and brought the Musharraf government on its knees begging for Mai’s forgiveness by promising to acknowledge to the world that she was gang-raped.

Why then do we have horror stories screaming out of newspapers daily about women murdered, mutilated and raped? Why then does the blood freeze by photos of women maimed at the hands of their husbands? Why then does the heart revolt against fathers, brothers and cousins who shoot dead their women in the name of honour? Why then does our inner being shake with pure revulsion at the sight of little girls bartered to old men?

Planted in the parliament are pretty youthful flowers handpicked and nurtured by their male colleagues in the ruling party and the opposition. They are there for the cosmetic effect and to show President Bush that women in Pakistan are going places. They are clever women. I dare say. But they have led lives in glass houses, untouched by the human misery and the chilling reality that capsules life of the poor in Pakistan. How would these privileged young things know about sexual abuse, incest, rape, honour killing, acid burning and flesh trading that has become the hallmark of Pakistani society? Have our women parliamentarians ­ both in the opposition and in the ruling party ­ come face-to-face with victims of such crimes? Have the hijab and nikab brigade seated in the plush halls of power considered having a one-on-one with the elders or a jirga to understand why they legitimatise honour killings and giving little girls in marriage to old men to settle family disputes?

But I am being naive... how can one expect the women parliamentarians of religious parties to question such inhuman practices being perpetrated on their less privileged sisters when they themselves are shackled? They cannot unchain themselves, leave alone unchaining others. So when some women lawmakers try to forget their political rivalries and introduce a bill that forbids crimes against women, the purdah posh members in the national and provincial assemblies gang up with waderas, chaudhries, maliks, syeds, pirs, shahs, to defeat the bill.

So forget Musharraf, Shujaat and their toadies in the houses of parliament to bail out the helpless women, daily victimised by domestic violence, ravaged by rape, incest and killing.

Enter the gallant World Bank. The mighty World Bank (WB) has sat on judgment over the women of Pakistan by dishing out a half-baked ‘Country Gender Assessment’ report, which claims to have all the answers to all the ills. It begins with good news: telling all that the quality of life of Pakistani women and girls has “improved”. Such a report does mischief for it gives out mixed messages to the donors and the government of Pakistan that all is quite well with the state of Pakistani women. Don’t the WB wiseacres read the daily newspapers? Not a day goes by without some chilling crime committed on women.

The report bears the rather grandiose title: Pakistan Country Gender Assessment 2005 ­ Bridging the Gender Gap ­ Opportunities and Challenges. But it watches women with eyes half shut, shining its spotlight only on education, health, labour force participation, mobility and family laws (vis-a-vis “culture”!), and that too in a most simplistic manner.

Tara Vishwanath, the author, unveiled her ‘masterpiece’ on May 4, 2005, where the WB invited government policymakers, politicians, representatives of donor agencies, international and national NGOs and women rights activists.

Newspapers are filled with horror stories of crimes against women, but the World Bank says that all is well with the state of Pakistani women

And guess what? The invitees expected to workshop the report were told to scan the two-volume document at the speed of lightning and absorb its contents for an academic discourse right there and then. What was galling to most Pakistani NGOs was the fact that they were not allowed to make comments or pose questions after Tara Vishwanath ended her presentation in the first half of the session. Expecting wide criticism, the WB didn’t want a mass of women activists holding up the mirror of reality before very important people that it had invited to the launch.

Once the ‘VIPs’ were safely out of sight and hearing distance, the WB opened up the mikes. Tahira Abdullah, a long-time warrior of women’s rights says the input made by her and others on the report would have been of critical value to the ‘VIPs’ (policymakers) ­ who needed to hear it most had WB allowed them a hearing in their presence.

Furthermore, the WB’s attitude in preparing the report smacks of arrogance. It betrays imperial haughtier and a disdain for the valuable data provided by the local women activists invited to two workshops by WB in 2004. “There is neither an acknowledgement nor a utilization of the oral and written input from Pakistani legal experts, NGOs, academicians and women’s rights activists ­ who were requested by and provided to the WB’s lead economist (Tara Vishwanath) and her colleagues in charge of this assessment,” says Tahira Abdullah, adding that it was a wasted effort “merely for the WB to put a rubber stamp of credibility on this intellectually misleading and inadequate exercise.”

The methodology employed by Vishwanath and her team to collect data is flawed. “Only a study of five villages in Punjab and Sindh is included in this report, leaving out the rest of Pakistan, thus making it a non-representative sample,” says Tahira Abdullah. What’s more dishonest is the inclusion of “desk review secondary data” provided by the government of Pakistan. “Much of this is disputed by highly-respected national and international researchers, academicians and rights activists.”

The most important aspect of gender issues in Pakistan, ­ the feminisation of poverty ­ is totally omitted. When pointed out at the workshop, Tara Vishwanath responded, in an “arrogant, patronising, condescending, insulting and even ridiculing manner, that Pakistani women’s problem ‘is NOT poverty, it is EDUCATION, EDUCATION and EDUCATION.’”

“This is particularly ironic, coming from an economist who carried out a poverty assessment of Pakistan for the WB just a few years ago,” says Saba Gul Khattak of Sustainable Development Institute of Pakistan.

It was pointed out to the WB officials present ­ again and again by the vast majority of the participants, that Pakistani women’s concerns cannot be either (a) isolated from the overall political and economic structural issues confronting us, such as feudalism, religious extremism, patriarchy, discriminatory laws and lack of access to justice, parallel “legal” systems (such as the illegal but flourishing jirga and punchayat system), lack of economic opportunities, the immense rural/urban divide, poverty, socio-economic exclusion, or (b) taken out of context from their structural and systemic root causes and confined to education, health and mobility!

“There is no linkage of the glaring ground realities. It appears the WB wants to “ghettoise” Pakistani women largely to the traditionally “safe” areas of education and health, totally outside the mainstream of the “hard-core” development process underway in the country,” says Tahira Abdullah. “Neither its “findings” nor its recommendations have added any value, nor does anything new to the vast corpus of literature that already exists on Pakistani women, in both the public and private-cum-NGO sectors.”

The WB may have actively harmed the efforts of the national women’s rights movement by appearing to commend certain traditional socio-cultural norms, against which women activists have struggled over the past quarter century from Peshawar to Karachi. Women like Tahira Abdullah, Ayesha Khan and Saba Gul Khattak are vehemently demanding that the flawed report must not be used as a primer for future planning and resource allocation by national and international agencies.