During the recent visit of
President Asif Ali Zardari, due to closure of the roads in Quetta, a poor woman gave a birth in an auto rickshaw. The situation in Balochistan will not be any different if the president would not have visited, but thanks to the media’s ambivalent relationship with the president, they highlighted and debated the issue at length to disparage Mr Zardari.
Though, fortuitously, this impecunious woman survived, there are hundreds of unfortunate women in the province who lose their lives simply because of natal complications and lack of maternal healthcare facilities.
The state of women’s rights in the province presents an extremely grim picture, where the maternal mortality ratio in rural Balochistan is 750 compared with the national average of 270 deaths per every 100,000 live births.
Women are discriminated against in the country at large, but in Balochistan they are discriminated against by the state. They have no access to enabling opportunities required for the empowerment of women in any modern and civilised society. Due to acute poverty, lack of medical facilities and trained personnel, and extremely poor infrastructure and communication resources, women in Balochistan are the prime victims of systematic and institutionalised discrimination imposed by Islamabad’s super-elite and policy makers.
The endless military operation, internal displacement, disappearances, intimidation and the prolonged Baloch-Islamabad conflict are hitting hard the already deprived women in the province. The central government’s discriminatory policy is not only resulting in a slowdown of gender empowerment, it is affecting the overall social and economic development process in the province.
During the recent offensives against the Baloch people started in 2003 and escalated in December 2005, about 2,600 to 3,200 innocent people have been killed in the operations including air raids in Balochistan, especially in Marri and Bugti areas. About 80-85 percent of those either killed or injured were women and children.
According to the United Nations December 2006 estimates, there were 84,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Balochistan, of which 26,000 were women and 33,000 were children. The provincial officials have not provided any relief and standard shelter to the Baloch IDPs. According to local sources, due to total blockade of Marri and Bugti areas by the security forces, about 8,000 to 10,000 allegedly died due to exodus, malnourishment, lack of shelter and disease. They had been reportedly living in deplorable conditions in the makeshift camps with no access to potable water, food, and other basic necessities. No medical facilities, electricity or even fuel to run water pumps was provided to these areas.
There have been reports of a severe malnutrition crisis among the IDPs. UNICEF, in its internal assessment report on nutritional status of women and children among the IDPs, revealed that 28 percent children under the age of five were ‘acutely undernourished’. Out of them, six percent were in the state of ‘severely acute malnutrition’ and 80 percent of the deaths among the IDPs were of children under the age of five. Six percent of the children were so underfed that they would die without immediate medical attention.
From the beginning, Islamabad has outrageously tried to cover up its ill-conceived and discriminatory policies by blaming the Baloch themselves for their appalling state. However, findings on health, education, communication, political empowerment and economic development clearly indicate that human development in Balochistan has been deliberately ignored by successive governments.
The increasing rate of preventable maternal mortality is a symptom of the larger social injustice of discrimination against women. Thousands of avoidable maternal deaths each year indicate the government’s unfaithfulness to domestic and international laws. Experts have indicated the basic lack of safe drinking water and sanitation as the major cause of infant and maternal mortality in the province.
The Pakistan Living Standard Measurement Survey (PSLM) 2004-5, identifies a sharp inter-provincial disparity with regard to access to safe drinking water. Several reports state that 52 percent of the population in Balochistan uses wells and open ponds for drinking water, compared to three percent in Punjab, 13 percent in Sindh and 35 percent in NWFP.
Despite being a signatory of major international conventions, Islamabad continues to ignore women’s basic rights to education in Balochistan. Access to all levels of education is crucial to empowering girls and women to participate in economic, social and political life of their societies. Education unlocks a woman’s potential, and is accompanied by improvements in health, nutrition, and well being of their families. The PSLM survey reported alarming regional disparity in the education sector. According to the survey, only 27 percent of the students in Balochistan complete primary or higher education, compared to 64 percent in Punjab. The increasing dropout rate is due to the unavailability of middle and high schools.
Islamabad is totally inactive and ignorant about the need to reduce or remove the interprovincial gender disparity and bring the neglected women of Balochistan at par with the rest of the provinces. Inter-provincial gender inequality in the employment sector is unspeakable. According to the State Bank of Pakistan’s 2005-06 report, Balochistan and the NWFP have the highest female unemployment rate of 27 percent and 29 percent, compared to seven percent and 20 percent for Punjab and Sindh respectively.
In fact, acute poverty at the margins appeared to be hitting the hardest at women. As long as women’s access to healthcare, education and training remains limited, prospects for improved social status of female population will remain bleak.
A large number of women’s vocational and training centres in Punjab make women more capable and confident to qualify for market jobs. Punjab has 111 women’s vocational institutes; Balochistan has only one.
Due to the severe shortage of girls’ schools in the province, only 23 percent rural girls are lucky enough to be enrolled at primary level as compared to 47 percent in rural Punjab.
The Social Policy Development Centre 2005 report discovered that the percentage of the population living in a high degree of deprivation stands at 88 percent in Balochistan, 51 percent in the NWFP, 49 percent in Sindh and 25 percent in Punjab. According to poverty-related reports, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line stands at 63 percent in Balochistan, 26 percent in Punjab, 29 percent in the NWFP and 38 percent in Sindh.
No development policy could succeed unless it is based on the needs and participation of the people in the process. In Balochistan’s case, what the people need is socio-economic development, political empowerment, clean drinking water, electricity, practical education, basic health facilities, and proper roads and infrastructure connecting rural towns to the main centres.
But the central government is doing the opposite. The Baloch are subject to extreme discrimination. No state in the present era singles out its citizens on the basis of region and ethnicity. My friend President Zardari, instead of giving a few hundred thousand rupees to the victim whose case was highlighted due to his visit to Quetta, needs to address the appalling state of women’s rights and issues in Sindh and Balochistan and rectify some of the discriminatory institutional policies preventing women’s empowerment in all aspects of society.
The writer is a former Senator and Research Fellow at Inter-Parliamentary Union Geneva, Switzerland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org