Aurat Foundation Pakistan is a member of the South Asian Network for Women’s Empowerment in Development (Sanwed) and I have had the privilege of representing Aurat Foundation at Sanwed’s inaugural meeting in Chennai in December 2005, at the Conference in Kathmandu in June 2010 and at the International Windows Day Conference held in London on 23 June 2006. These gatherings were highly rewarding. They enabled me to meet colleagues and partners, exchange views, and learn about new ideas, projects and initiatives.
Therefore, I was looking forward to this Sanwed workshop which has been organised by Women for Human Rights (Single Women Group) in Kathmandu but, unfortunately, am unable to attend it. However, I should like to put forward my views on the subject of ameliorating the plight of widows, which is our common concern, with respect to Pakistan.
Until the results of Pakistan’s Census of 2011 become available, we have to rely on statistics about widows on the Census of 1998 which I have quoted in the paper I read in the Conference in Kathmandu in June 2010. However, since the population of Pakistan has increased greatly since the last Census, given the pattern population growth, the number of widows must have also risen in the same proportion.
Since the Census of 1998, natural calamities have added to the misery of all women, including widows. The catastrophic earthquake of October 2005, which claimed 75,000 lives, deprived countless women of shelter and livelihoods. Also, after the dust had settled, it was difficult for the victims of the earthquake to relocate their homes, lands, fields, and other properties. In the process, women and children, especially widows, suffered the most in claiming their ownership and inheritance rights.
In two successive years, 2010 and 2011, Pakistan has been inundated by massive floods. Thousands of people have been flooded out of their homes and hearths, desperately seeking dry patches of land, camping in makeshift shelters and tents donated by the international community, living on the dole of philanthropists and donors. The floods of 2010 affected 18 million people and made 14 million people eligible for humanitarian assistance. They washed away or damaged 1.6 million homes, thousands of acres of standing crops and millions of cattle. After the torrential monsoons and floods this year, in some areas the waters have still not receded. It will be a long time before people can return to their homes. As in all calamities, women were the most vulnerable victims.
Last year, Aurat Foundation launched, in the wake of the floods, a worldwide appeal, called the Motherland Flood Relief Campaign for Women and Children. This appeal viewed the catastrophe through a gender- sensitive lens. Our work in the floods-hit areas focused on the specific needs of women, especially their hygiene and medical requirements. We mobilised our volunteers and workers through the network of our Citizens’ Action Committees for Women’s Rights, Women Leaders Groups and District Coordination Committees. We were heartened by the response of our partners who flashed our appeal throughout the world.
We have not been able, so far, to draw up a cogent strategy for dealing with the problems of widows. But Aurat Foundation is the leading women’s empowerment organisation in Pakistan and we work incessantly for women’s rights. Combining our grass roots network with our outreach to women parliamentarians, we have been able to successfully lobby for the passage of many pro-women laws. Some would argue that legislation does not alter negative social perceptions and customs. But we are convinced that pro-women legislation is the first essential step towards securing a better deal for women, including widows.
The latest such legislation, passed unanimously by the National Assembly of Pakistan on 16 November 2010, is called the Anti-Women Practices Bill. It provides for at least 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of one million rupees for using deceitful means to deprive a woman of her inheritance, up to seven years and a minimum of three years and Rs. 500,000 as fine for giving a woman in forced marriage to settle civil disputes or a criminal liability and up to seven years and a minimum of three years with Rs. 500,000/- as fine for compelling or facilitating the marriage of a woman to the Quran, a practice practised by some feudal families to deprive women of their inheritance.
Other pro-women laws from which widows can also gain protection are:
- Amendment in 2001 of the Citizenship Act 1951, which enables women to pass their citizenship to their children.
- The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2005, which prescribes punishments for crimes committed in the name of honour. Specifically, it prohibits and prescribes punishment for giving women as Badl-i-Sulh or in exchange for peace.
- Protection of Women (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2006, which makes amendments in the infamous Hudood laws to give women relief by shifting rape and several other offences back to the Pakistan Penal Code.
- Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2009 which became law in 2010, criminalises sexual harassment of women at work, under which all forms of harassment, verbal or physical, intimidation or creating a hostile working environment, is punishable by imprisonment up to three years or with a fine up to Rs. 500,000 or with both.
- Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2009 (see Urdu text here) which became law in 2010, addresses the issue of harassment of women in all places of work. It applies to women workers in brick kilns, agriculture, industry, markets, public places and as domestic workers. It provides that managements of organisations should institute codes of conduct and prescribes punishments.
- The Domestic Violence Bill 2009 has been passed by the National Assembly but has yet to be taken up by the Senate.
- The Acid Control and Acid Prevention Bill 2011 has yet to be addressed by Parliament.
Aurat Foundation hopes that the above legislation will provide relief and succour to all women, including widows, in Pakistan. We will continue to work towards that end.
This paper was read on Dr Masuma Hasan’s behalf at the Sanwed Consultative Workshop held in Kathmandu on 9-10 Decembe 2011. Dr Masuma Hasan is a Member Board of Governors and Treasurer, Aurat Foundation Pakistan