The fault in our objectives


And the inability to correct ourselves



Pakistan today faces a plethora of social problems; be it non-existent national health insurance system culminating into poor health services, poor structure of public school system, or unavailability of unemployment benefit plans, the government has been unable to address these issues with required seriousness. But the most daunting of social issues that the Pakistani society today faces is the marginalisation of women in social, economic and political realms. Despite efforts from the governments of Pakistan (previous and existing) in the form of Benazir Income Support Program, this specific risk continues to haunt the society of Pakistan.

According to International Honour Based Violence Awareness Centre (HBVA), out of 5000 international cases of honour killing every year, 1000 take place in Pakistan. The office of Federal Ombudswoman for Protection of Women against Harassment in 2014 found that 60 percent of women who are lucky enough to be allowed to step out of their homes face harassment in universities, offices and public places. The Pakistan Economic Survey of 2014-15 shows a drop of one percent from year 2013-14 in female literacy rate which now sits at a humble 47 percent (from my experience of working at a government organisation, there is a high probability that the numbers presented are fudged) which can be even lower in reality. In 2014, the World Economic Forum released a research study report entitled Global Gender Gap Report in which 142 countries were evaluated on the prevailing gender inequalities in their countries, Pakistan was ranked 141st on the overall grade. If we further probe into the details of the report we can observe that Pakistan ranks yet again 141st out of 142 countries for economic participation of the women, 132nd out of 142 countries for educational attainment, 119th out of 142 countries for health and survival index and 85th out of 142 countries for political empowerment. These numbers clearly show that women are still very marginalised in a patriarchal Pakistani society.

According to International Honour Based Violence Awareness Centre (HBVA), out of 5000 international cases of honour killing every year, 1000 take place in Pakistan

The Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) was initiated in 2008 with the fundamental objective of women empowerment; the important question here is that why has BISP failed to achieve its objective? The answer is simple: the fault lies in our objectives. According to the BISP official website, the main long term objectives of BISP are: [1] provide support in achievement of Millennium Development Goals, [2] Women Empowerment, [3] to eradicate extreme and chronic poverty and [4] achieving universal primary education. These objectives and actions of BISP are incoherent with each other, which is a result of the conceptual flaws in the program. Most of the people argue that these objectives are merely sweeping political statements and are not the real objectives, but if they are enlisted on the official website for public viewing then these are official objectives, which a common citizen has access to, and for which the program should be held accountable for in eyes of the citizenry, and it’s a shame if the government is not providing the true objectives on public forum, after all in a democracy it is the job of a government to keep the electorate well informed. Many have attacked BISP for its administrative problems: delay in income support delivery, extortion by district officers etc. but the real problem is with the very concept of the program. The reason why BISP has failed to empower women of Pakistan is because a mere transfer of Rs1500 per month in no way empowers them, rather makes them dependent on the state for their livelihood.

Women Empowerment is not just providing women with a meagre monthly stipend, it entails: [1] increasing awareness amongst the male members of the society about gender equality, [2] providing education for females, [3] providing skills trainings to the females of the country [4] providing environment and opportunities to women for economic participation and [4] providing women an equal opportunity to hold political offices.

Secondly, the notion of gender inequality in Pakistan doesn’t stem from the financial in-equilibrium between the male and female, rather the roots of gender inequality originate from the very concept that most of the male population of the country believes that females are by design not as capable as they are hence they should be confined to the boundaries of the house to do menial tasks. Both these issues can’t be resolved with any monthly income support. In order to empower the women, the government needs to provide them with opportunities to educate and equip themselves with skills required for vocations and train themselves to sustain and thrive in the society without any male reliance. Because if this change in attitude won’t be there, that makes women feel equal to men, then there is a huge possibility that the monthly income support provided to women is also surrendered to their male counterparts just as their will to be independent has been.

The Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) was initiated in 2008 with the fundamental objective of women empowerment; the important question here is that why has BISP failed to achieve its objective?

Paraphrasing an old proverb, give a woman a fish and you feed her for a day, teach a woman to fish and you feed her for a lifetime, I believe that it is more important to empower the women of Pakistan through providing them with opportunities to educate and train themselves for various vocations. The program can surely achieve its objective of empowering women if it starts providing vocational trainings, at least secondary education and teachings on preparing business plans to the beneficiaries. Also, the program should take a different approach of monetary support. The program needs an overhaul replacing monthly income support to a lump sum payment for procurement of assets or setting up a small business. And the procurement of asset to the beneficiary or transfer of a small business to the beneficiary should be conditional in nature. The condition should be that the beneficiary receive training from BISP training centres (which should be established) for operation of the asset and in case of business, the beneficiary should chalk a business plan with assistance from BISP staff. This condition should be imposed to ensure that the beneficiaries have all the necessary knowledge of running the support (asset or business) they are being provided by the government.

These changes will not only empower women in the true sense of the word but also create a ripple effect on the economy by increasing the number of earners in the economy in two ways: firstly, the women who will run their newly acquired assets and businesses and secondly by increased number of educated staff members of BISP who will be assisting the beneficiaries in trainings, setting up businesses, asset procurement and creation of business plans. This can also solve the issue of unemployment, to some extent, for fresh university graduates nationally.

It is indeed a pity that we rank second to last in gender equality when a program solely designated for creating gender equality receives Rs65 million out of our budget. It is time to change the way we prioritise our objectives so that we can have a society that no longer objectifies its women.