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A globalizing world of gender inequality

by Hina Shahid

April 28, 2006

Debt and poverty have enslaved Fatima, a 30 years old pale and feeble young woman, since childhood. Unspeakable violence, as a matter of daily life, and distortions of mind and spirit beyond comprehension were caused to her due to association with her sisters, daughters, mother, brothers and sons. Unlimited exposure to constant harassment and degradation, including verbal assault, malnutrition, sleep deprivation, torture, physical and sexual abuse is the usual fare for the rural woman of Sindh, and all this magnifies the horror of hunger in villages of Sindh.

Fatima was raised along with her 14 brothers and sisters in dreaded poverty. They owned a katcha house and none of them went to school. Fatima described her father as a strict authoritarian, who often frightened her by yelling, but she mentioned her mother as supportive. She got married at the age of 15 years, with a relative who was twice her age. She thought that this might be a different life, thinking to draw some excitement out of her life she dreamt for. But, dreams are for the sleeping! “I remember those slaps across the face,” Fatima reminded herself. “The next day, he put me out on the street to just stand there, and not talk to anybody, telling me that he would marry again, this time of his own choice, and if I speak up, he would blow my head off.”

Fatima was too frustrated to talk. She estimated that she was beaten up too many times to remember. After such assault, she required medical attention for a knife wound. ‘I knew what he was doing, but it was like I have no feeling… It was my survival for the kids, and I had to bear everything for it. I was supposed to learn how to be a slave and a glutton for punishment. I had to apologize for being alive, and had to thank him for each act of torture, and actually beg for more”, said Fatima.

The repeated trauma from sexual abuse and beatings led to physical numbness, hypersensitivity and thought disorientation. She could not make the choice, and found no escape, but to compromise. Her drug-addicted husband sold out all her belongings that were given at the time of marriage. Too many bruises on her body forced her not to socialise with relatives and friends.

Aside from the drudgery at home, her whole day is spent in fetching the water from some distance, and scrounging for enough firewood for the day. “Our children learned to abuse, to slap each other, and are even involved in small thefts,” said Fatima.

Liberal ideologies overlook those empty stomachs, sweaty bodies, rough hands and dismal eyes that fetch water from faraway distances in deserted areas, to feed their families. Political changes, combined with economic crises, have devastated the entire country, causing millions to slide down the poverty line, and thus increasing the hunger of vulnerable women and children. The struggle for survival has continued despite the fact of increase in death toll each year. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of United Nations has reported hunger and destitution estimates throughout the world in 2004, which are terrifying to study. Some 852 million people worldwide were undernourished during the 2000-2002 period. This figure includes 815 million in developing countries, 28 million in the countries in transition, and 9 million in the industrialized countries. Adding more on this subject, the report reveals that most hungry and poor people live in rural areas in the developing countries. These regions are home to a vast majority of nearly 11 million children who die before reaching the age of five, including 8 million infants; of the 530 000 women who die during pregnancy and childbirth; of the 300 million cases of acute malaria and more than one million malaria deaths each year; and of the 121 million children who do not attend school.

Our underprivileged rural women get nothing but violence and ingratitude throughout their entire life. Add to this, the acute hunger and malnutrition, and you have a perfect scenario for suffering. Our women rights and so-called social development NGOs can only participate in the activities just to adjust those funds that have to be spent under women rights heads, giving less importance to what those women choose for themselves on that day.

The world in which our rural and slum women live is entirely different from what is usually reported generally at these forums and seminars. According to reports by a local organization, during the year 2005, some 384 women were murdered, 179 were kidnapped, 157 committed suicides, 39 were gang-raped, and 203 women were rendered shelterless in the province of Sindh alone! 

These rural women did not survive to celebrate the International Women Day! They are among the thousands of women maimed or killed out of ‘honour’ decade after decade. And even if they had survived, what would there have been to celebrate anyway?

Every year, billions are being invested by international sponsors in the name of socio-economic development of rural women and children, yet there is hardly anything to show for it. Just last year, some 256 women committed suicide to protest against forced marriages. Anywhere in the world, this would be an alarming rate inside a province in a year. But, nothing stirs! At best, these afflicted women can only hope to register their protest by a tragic end to their lives! For years, they suffer in the long drawn-out marital trials in local courts, and wait interminably for some money in compensation. 

Will there be any progress towards reducing the number of hungry women and children by half, till 2015, as targeted in Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? According to sources, international community is far from reaching its hunger reduction targets and commitments set by the MDGs and the World Food Summit (WFS). 

“Investment in the education of girls might be the highest return investment available in the developing world”, said Lawrence Summers, then Vice President of World Bank 1992. Today, in most of the rural villages, female education does not have any noticeable percentage on the measuring scale. Yet, the reports of the local organizations show a good number of educated females! The funds that come in for the sake of education of girls and adult females are projected so languidly in these documents, but in actuality, the female rural minds continue to remain in acute thirst of education.

The idea of International Women’s Day arose at the turn of the century, which was advocated as a safeguard against the extensively industrialized world, as a period of expansion and turbulence was following the era. Unfortunately, this region of Asia is still without any of the basic safeguards promised in the IWD, after more than a century of its inception. Over the years, our women are being victimized by Jirgas/Panchayats that violate the written law, which do not honour the basic human rights standards, or the rights of women. In fact, the committees such as National Commission on Status of Women seem to have failed in placing any recommendations for abolishing Hudood Ordinance. Local and international organizations that are run in the name of women rights have been ignoring the real areas of concern in this regard. No debate is ever initiated in the concerned government departments regarding the core women issues. The issues raised in the assemblies are not properly addressed, nor monitored with follow ups from the concerned ministries. It is vital that the talk on women’s rights go beyond abstract statements and fuzzy sentiments without making any efforts to protect victims.

The growing international women’s movement cannot be strengthened by women conferences, unless the destitute women from the down-trodden and rural areas participate in the political and economic process. The progress can only be felt after coordinated efforts towards change, by not only the incumbent government, but also in the mindset of our women rights workers. -Lawrence Summers, then Vice-President of the World Bank, 1992

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