These are testing times for women in Pakistan. The country ranks 106th out of 137 on the Gender-related Development Index and 66th out of 75 on the Gender Empowerment Measurement Index. Despite religious, constitutional and legal rights, women’s position in the society is weak.
With each passing day, conditions are getting miserable as women are subjected to more extreme forms of violence and exclusion. Incidents of honour killing, rape, fire and acid burning, domestic violence, dowry-abuse, trafficking, under-age marriage and trade of young girls among tribes for dispute settlement are gruesome and frequent. Women in rural and poor communities are more vulnerable to violence and crime, committed most often by their own family members, in the name of law, religion, customs and tradition. It is sad that incidents of physical and psychological torture upon women are increasing but grossly under-reported in the media or other public reporting systems.
Women’s access to education, employment, health, property and justice had been severely restricted for years. Now the rise in extremism has taken its toll as opportunities for socio-political interaction; education, health and freedom of expression and mobility have reduced sharply in large parts of the country. Pakistan has one of the lowest rates for girl-child survival, maternal safety, literacy and employment among women because of prolonged discrimination and injustice.
For many women early marriage, even at the age of 12 results in unreported / underreported domestic violence, high levels of maternal mortality, morbidity and incidences of Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI’s) including HIV & AIDS. Low levels of education and illiteracy, especially among women (37%), are also factors for increased incidence of STIs and HIV & AIDS. To top it all, involvement of men in highlighting these issues remains low, and is therefore a contributory factor to the deteriorating situation regarding gender equality, empowerment and violence against women (VAW) in Pakistan.
Signs of hope
Despite tough opposition, women’s rights campaigners have done exemplary work over the years to raise the issue of VAW. Due to their consistent mobilization and advocacy, many social norms and attitudes are changed. Successive governments had been under pressure to amend or even repeal laws that are discriminatory against women, because of the struggle put forwarded by these groups. It is easier for women to seek justice and gather support from rights campaigners than before. The media is playing an equally important role of highlighting VAW issues in a positive manner, thus creating awareness and courage in members of the society.
Keeping up with the spirit, Sunshine Welfare Organization (SWO), a group of committed young activists from Karachi and Islamabad, is trying to address the situation with fresh approaches. ‘We think the situation is alarming and requires a sustained but aggressive effort’ says Shahzad Iqbal, the founder of the Organization. “Violence against women must be stopped immediately. We are committed to challenge all discriminatory laws, attitudes and practices that are making women’s lives difficult”.
SWO has been advocating for women’s rights for several years. Now it is taking the effort to another level. From 25th November 2009, SWO is planning to initiate a series of activities to mobilize youth at an unprecedented scale, with the help of inter-personal as well as Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) tools.
“We are engaging communities of youth, both boys and girls, through dialogues and other means of expressions to celebrate the UN’s ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence’ campaign” Shahzad says.
The Organization intends to organize dialogues, walks, poster-making competitions, walks along with email and sms-based information dissemination campaign to audiences across the country. The activities would primarily ensure women’s participation as well as invite the government, media, civil society and business sectors to collaborate in this noble cause.
‘Our goal is to strengthen the voices that are demanding better living conditions for women across the world and in the country’ said Shahzad Iqbal. ‘We hope that the objectives for these activities are in unison with many other groups and individuals and we are looking forward to join hands with them’.
‘We are trying to move people’ says Shazad. ‘We want them to understand the connection between VAW and different health-hazards that the women are facing including HIV and AIDS.’
SWO activities are innovative, yet participatory on several counts. ‘Our activities would mobilize men and male youth (future men) by enhancing their awareness about VAW situation, its types, impacts and means of eradication including understanding of their roles. We would also build capacities of a group of representative men from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) which are not currently focusing /working upon women’s rights. It will sensitize them against VAW issues and initiate a change process in their organizations’ policies and functioning’. says Shahzad.
Through its training component SWO seeks to fill the void of interaction between gender specialists and those who are routinely blamed as perpetrators of subtle but routinely practiced forms of violence against women like private transporters, shop keepers, lower-level public servants including clerks, messengers and guards posted at public/private offices etc. It would invite representative organizations from such areas of public interaction and raise their consciousness about how women are being subjected to gender-related violence in daily occurrence; and how they can protect women from harassment and fears by changing their attitudes and practices.
But it will not be just talk. There will be colours too. SWO intends to provide creative means of expression to young boys and girls, aged 13 to 16 years, in Karachi and Rawalpindi or Islamabad to illustrate the situation of VAW in the society. ‘Through poster competitions, we would try to understand how growing minds are looking at things. It would be another kind of expression that involves more intense feelings and appeal’.
The Organization has developed special messages and materials for this year’s campaign. These would be sent out to thousands of people to mobilize them and invite them to join the movement. ‘There is no better time to raise the issue of VAW in the society. We have lost many precious lives due to inaction and apathy. Those lives should have been saved’ says Shahzad Iqbal. ‘But all is not lost. We know, our people have the strength to move mountains. It’s just a question of reaching out to them. And we are reaching out. We are certain; it is going to turn out good.’
SWO Activities for the Campaign
‘16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence’ 2009
- Two Debate Competitions with 250-300 youth about women’s rights and impacts of VAW (one each in Karachi and Rawalpindi or Islamabad)
- Two Poster Competitions with 250-300 youth on VAW (one each in Karachi and Rawalpindi or Islamabad)
- Two Trainings Workshops with groups of men from Civil Society Organizations which are not currently focusing upon women’s rights (one each in Karachi and Rawalpindi or Islamabad)
- 16-Day Campaign over the Internet for mass-awareness and information dissemination through SWO website, international social networks, local and foreign blogs and email-based groups in Urdu/English language
- 16-Day Campaign through SMS to mobilize hundreds of people through especially developed slogans and text-based messages in Urdu and English languages.
Sunshine Welfare Organization (SWO) is a registered, non-profit organization with the mission to ensure justice and equality of opportunity to the disadvantaged and underserved people, to empower them to become productive members of the society. It believes that sustainable development would only become a reality when a democratic, free and accountable society is established. The Organization envisages a culture where decision-making processes are inclusive and participatory; and benefits are shared with everyone in an equitable manner.
For information about SWO and its activities, please visit www.swo-pk.org