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Empowering Balochistan’s women – remains a Herculean task

Balochistan is a tribal society where women are seen to be discriminated, exploited, oppressed, browbeaten, and chastised in the name of so-called social practices- rooted in medieval times. It is harder to challenge the long-cherished traditions of the society. A change in the status quo will take a long time. It is the history, culture and tradition, which determine the status quo in a society and is also a fact that the history and tradition cannot be abandoned immediately and completely. The Women Protection Bill, 2006 was strongly opposed by majority of members of the parliaments, particularly the Islamist parties which claimed the bill was against the Islamic law. Under the 1973 constitution, all Pakistani citizens are equal, with no distinction based on gender alone. Unfortunately, constitutional guarantees of equality have not been enforced in actual practice. Enforcement of the law is the real challenge. It has been observed on ground that force of custom most often prevails over official laws, making it difficult for women to claim their legal rights.

Women’s economic independence and empowerment is the key component of any strategy devised to develop human resources in Balochistan, the country’s most backward and least developed province. Unfortunately, women, the half of population, do not enjoy adequate economic independence and hence they are not playing their due role in the economic development of the province. A major cause of underdevelopment in the province is the lowest participation of women in economic activities.

Convention of Jirga (the meeting of tribal chiefs and elders) for settlement of disputes is still in practice in rural areas of Balochistan where people settle their family disputes through tribal justice system, instead of resorting to the court of law.

Women are even discriminated under tribal justice system under which they are not consulted when important decisions affecting their lives are made. They are handed over as part of a compensation deal to settle a revenge killing or an ‘honour’ crime. It is ironical that the tribal chiefs and feudal lords, which frequently become the members of parliament, strongly support this cruel practice. They believe the practice of handing over of women to settle a dispute is highly desirable for peace-keeping objective arguing that it produces blood bonds which make for lasting peace. This feudal mindset actually reflects high level of disregard for women’s rights.

Only about one-third of girls, who should be in primary school, are enrolled in the province. The province’s gross primary school enrollment rates show a significant disparity between male and female enrollment. Girls’ education is more important in Balochistan. The government should consider the schooling of the mother as important as the family’s income in improving a child’s nutrition. Research studies have revealed that mothers’ illiteracy and lack of schooling directly harm their young children. Children under five are more likely to survive if their mothers have some primary schooling than if they have no schooling, and even more so if their mothers have some secondary schooling. In the early 1990s, several surveys found that parents refused to send their daughters to school because the shortage of female teachers in schools, which were co-educational and at a long distance from their residence. Only those educational programs for girls’ enrollment may succeed in Balochistan which are designed taking into account the traditions, cultural values, and socio-economic conditions of families and communities that influence demand for schooling.

Handicrafts can play an important role in women’s economic empowerment, especially in rural Balochistan, where it is generally practiced at local family level. The handicraft work is common in the rural areas, where females having learnt the handicraft skills are actively engaged in sewing them to raise a livelihood for their families. The tribal system also hinders the development and promotion of this sector, as women are not allowed to play their vital role in a free environment. Tribal restrictions confine the women to their houses restricting their free movement in the society and thus they remain unaware of the rapidly changing trends in designing and marketing of the products.

According to a UN literacy survey report, females in rural areas with lowest literacy rate, were more inclined to embroidery. They, belonging to the lower class of society, live under poverty, and for them making money on embroidery skills is a real bonus in life. Females from all age are engaged in doing embroidery skills, however, majority of them belong to young age. The learning of embroidery is formal for majority of them, as they don’t undergo any specific training for that; nonetheless, it needs special skills to do it properly. The embroidery involves a lot of eyesight work as one has to concentrate all on stitching without losing a trace, otherwise it can spoil the work. The important thing in needlework is cleanness and sophistication of stitching. In rural areas, women spend longer time in needlework doing it in night under a lamp, are prone to eye-sight problems.

The women have no social safety net in Balochistan, particularly in rural districts where women are bound by practices that affect their welfare. The government should create conditions leading to the economic empowerment of women in Balochistan. They should be provided opportunities to play their role at all levels and in all types of development activities. They must have the opportunity and be provided with an environment to develop their talents. Local women should get the possibility to enter all types and all levels of education and training. Education and training facilities should be provided to a large extent on the inputs women are already providing.

Women police stations and offices of women councilors need to be established at district and sub-district level across the province, particularly in rural areas. A strong local government system may help build the capacity of local councilors, including women councilors, improve the quality of women’s lives and lay the groundwork for greater autonomy for women in all spheres of social life.

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