March 8, International Women’s Day, has, since 1909, brought women from across the world together — reminding them that no matter where they live or what they do, their concerns and problems are often similar ones. Discrimination, after all, is still suffered in one form or the other by women almost everywhere in the world and violence directed against women is not restricted to any particular group or country. While women have come a long way in terms of the careers open to them and have succeeded in all but a handful of nations in obtaining the right to adult franchise, they still face all kinds of restrictions on civil rights, dress, conduct, education and the right to choose marriage partners.
In Pakistan, of course, the majority of women who make up half the country’s population of some 180 million people, will go through March 8 without realising its significance. The limitation on education for girls is one of the key factors that stand in their way. While enrolment at schools has gone up over the decades, today less than 40 per cent of women in the country are literate. In areas such as Fata, this figure drops to around three percent, or even lower according to some NGOs who work to promote empowerment for women in the region. This lack of learning has a profound impact on many areas of life, including empowerment, reproductive health and economic rights. Talibisation has, of course, added to the difficulties many women face. The hold of ‘tradition’, which promotes practices such as child marriage or the handing over of women to settle a dispute, refuses to recede.
Despite the oppression many face, women in Pakistan have taken many strides forward, excelling in academics, in sports and in courage. A significant number has fought back from the most difficult circumstances to seek justice for themselves after falling victim to crime. Their examples inspire others to do the same and to try and throw off the darkness that still envelops too many women in the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2011.