Fifteen years ago the Fourth World Conference on Women produced the Beijing declaration and Platform for Action, “a comprehensive women’s human rights paradigm that envisioned the transformation of power relations. Fifteen years on, the fundamental issue of power relations remains on the fringes of the discourse being held at the level of governments and international bureaucracies, just as the Millennium Development Goals remains a wish list for the perpetually optimistic.
Last week, a review of the national consultation of non-governmental organisations working for women’s human rights was held at Lahore. Comprehensive and profound submissions were made by women from around the country on varied topics such as the affects of conflict on women and children, the inclusion of women in negotiations for peace, the feminisation of poverty and the role of women in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Insights into the exploitation and oppression of women were provided by those who have engaged in activism as well as academic research over the past three decades. Contemporary crises such as increasing violence against women, democracies in distress and a sharp rise in extremism were analysed for their impact on women specifically and society in general. Through the process of review, it was evident that not much progress had been made on the part of the government's professed commitment towards almost half its citizens.
In fact, perhaps therein lies the irony: that in fifteen years thousands of women have died in South Asia as a result of inhuman customary practices, the neglect of their health, traditional preference for sons resulting in female foeticide, and wilful, brutal crimes such as sexual assault, reversing the global biological norm of 106 women to 100 men. To its credit, the current government has brought new legislation to protect women from harassment, but that is only half the story.
The other half consists of how women view themselves: Do they believe they are worthy citizens, capable of achieving their fullest potential, worthy of dignity, security, and the right to life itself? What happens when serious issues such as the right to health, education, justice, equity, nutrition, employment, leisure time, inheritance, political space and decision making are not internalised within the hearts and minds of women themselves? What happens when the class-based nature of exploitation and oppression is not addressed?
For are there not varying degrees of power enjoyed by women across the spectrum? Do both feudal structures and the market economy not reinforce pre-existing inequalities between the powerful and the powerless? Do women who wield power not use it to their own ends? Do such women sometimes not occupy spaces where the debate on equity and justice is held, shutting their eyes to their own role in perpetuating the many injustices towards the disenfranchised?
It is indeed paradoxical that we hear the mantra of human rights being chanted by those who have propped up dictatorial regimes, by those who deny other women their rights, including that of inheritance, by those who have partnered with some of the most bigoted regimes and institutions, including those which have played a part in creating or perpetuating the current crisis of extremism which exacerbates the appalling condition of women.
The failure to marry the personal with the political can lead to the absence of both commitment and integrity, marring the vision which has been developed by those women who have genuinely struggled to practice what they preach. The inclusion in this debate of those who have conveniently stood by military rulers and supported the politics of obscurantism is not acceptable, as much as the giving of space to those who seek only to further their own agendas, insensible to the rights of other, less powerful women.
That we have to seek justice in national and international forums where injustice has been the order of the day is a reality we have to work with. Inserting ourselves into the fissures of these edifices is perhaps the only way forward. But must we carry along with us the burden of hypocrisy and opportunism?