The International Day of Rural Women: Reaching Out to the Rural Women of Pakistan
by SAMEENA NAZIR*
Oct. 15 is the International Day of Rural Women. Women’s rights organizations in many countries including Pakistan are observing this day today to reiterate their commitment to rural women, their challenges and aspirations.
Rural women are one of the largest segments of society in Pakistan. Rural women make up 51 percent of the population that lives full time in villages and carries out most of the household and agricultural work. In May 2009, a Time-Use Survey conducted by the Ministry of Finance verified that rural women spend more time working on a daily basis than rural men. The government of Pakistan in its various studies, including a report submitted to the United Nations on the compliance of U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discriminations against Women (CEDAW), documented that 79 percent of agricultural work is carried out by rural women compared to 63 percent agricultural work done by rural men. The Agriculture Census in Pakistan (2006-2007) also shows how rural women are contributing to the agricultural economy of the country yet there is hardly any focus on the needs of women in agriculture and extension services for women farmers.
Despite huge contributions, the rural women particularly women farmers in Pakistan, remain unrecognized for their hard work, commitment to our motherland, agriculture and economy and food security. Their labor is not valued at the national level and their contributions are not highlighted as those of male farmers. In May 2009, a national Kissan Convention held in Islamabad, Pakistan, only allowed those Kissan who owned a piece of land. Most rural women are not even recognized as Kissan even though they work all their lives on the land that they never own. The lack of recognition is a major reason for lower status of rural women. Due to increasing poverty in rural areas, a large number of rural women in Pakistan have been drawn to the menial work — a low paid, piece-rate contractual labor — which has inbuilt exploitation and injustice caused to the poor women of the rural areas particularly those adjacent to the cities. As this is a new outgrowth of globalization, few government institutions or organizations are paying systematic attention to this sector so as to observe the human rights violations and discrimination against home-based women workers in rural areas.
The denial of women’s economic and social rights in Pakistan is still not recognized as human rights violations. The condition of women in Pakistan, especially those who constitute the rural masses, does not meet the minimum human rights protection standards. Rural women play significant and critical roles in Pakistan’s economy and contribute to all activities of rural economy including:
- crop production,
- rearing livestock,
- cottage industry,
- food preparation and preservation,
- home-based entrepreneurial pursuits,
- household and family maintenance,
- transporting water, fuel wood and fodder to and from home, and
- caring of children, elderly and disabled members of the household.
Historically rural women have always played a major role in ensuring food security as well as in the development and stability of the rural areas. However, due to the patriarchal cultural tradition, gender discriminatory laws and anti-women practices in the name of religion and culture, the vital contributions of rural women are neither recognized nor acknowledged. Pakistan has not made sufficient progress on a range of important gender measurements such as narrowing the gap between male and female literacy rates. The situation is even worst in rural area where the literacy rate for women is 45 percent lower then in urban areas. Only 27 percent of rural women in Pakistan can read or write. Pakistan has the lowest literacy rate for women in South Asia.
At the international level, rural women issues have been gaining some recognition for some years. In 1995, on the occasion of Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, conference participants demanded that Oct. 15 be remembered as a day for rural women. The government of Pakistan, under the leadership of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto actively participated in this Conference and endorsed this idea also. In this difficult time in the history of Pakistan when uncivilized forces are bent upon destroying our cultural heritage and values, Oct. 15 is an opportunity for the government and society to demonstrate the importance of rural women who ensure food security, peace and stability in our society.
In 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations also approved of this idea through a resolution (A/RES/62/136) titled “Improvement of the Situation of Women in Rural Areas.” The resolution calls on all governments to recognize the contributions of rural women and take all necessary steps to guarantee the economic, social, civil and political rights of rural women.
Unfortunately, the government of Pakistan in general and the relevant government ministries and line agencies such as the Ministry of Women Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Social Welfare do not have up to date knowledge or sufficient interest or expertise about the national and international commitments regarding the rights of rural women. Only a small minority of government officials are aware that the United Nations has passed various conventions and declarations to address the challenges women face. The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discriminations against Women (CEDAW) is a core convention ratified by the government of Pakistan in 1996. The government has also endorsed critical United Nations documents such as the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and Beijing +10 processes that have contributed to the overall movement for women rights. Principally the government agencies are required to have a gender focal person in each line agency but key ministries such as the Ministry of Rural Development has such posts vacant. The government of Pakistan is committed to addressing the issues of rural women under article 14 of CEDAW. Specifically this articles states that the government must ensure the following for rural women in a country:
- To participate in the elaboration and implementation of development planning at all levels;
- To have access to adequate health care facilities, including information, counselling and services in family planning;
- To benefit directly from social security programs;
- To obtain all types of training and education, formal and non-formal, including that relating to functional literacy, as well as, inter alia, the benefit of all community and extension services, in order to increase their technical proficiency;
- To organize self-help groups and cooperatives in order to obtain equal access to economic opportunities through employment or self employment;
- To participate in all community activities;
- To have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes;
- To enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications.
(PODA) Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy is a Pakistani nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has started a campaign in Pakistan towards getting the official recognition of Oct. 15 as the National Day of Rural Women in Pakistan. PODA is supported by United Methodist Women’s Mission Giving. This would be an important step toward reclaiming rural women’s rightful place in the society and recognizing their work, contributions, needs and rights. This campaign has four inter-connected objectives that have been developed over one year of consultations with rural women including rural women teachers, rural women politicians, women workers, women’s rights activists, NGOs, media, academics, concerned government departments, and relevant ministries and experts in rural development, agriculture and women’s rights issues. The objectives of the 2009 Conference are:
- Demand acceptance of rural women as full human beings with equal rights, dignity and legal status.
- Press for official and social recognition of rural women as key contributors to rural economy, agriculture and food security.
- Facilitate a path for rural women to play leadership roles at all levels by advocating that the government of Pakistan should prepare a comprehensive policy for rural women in Pakistan
- Demand that the government of Pakistan declare October 15 as the National Day of Rural Women in Pakistan.
All these issues point toward the need for the civil society to concentrate on the mobilization of rural women, but the crucial issue is that there has not been much mobilization of rural women in Pakistan. Common, poor and rural women are continuously and routinely bogged down in daily chores and services. In the light of above, it is desirable that civil society organizations like PODA pay more attention to the mobilization of women.
PODA works for the rights of rural communities in Pakistan. Rural women cultivate life in Pakistan. We all have the responsibility to ensure their social protection and equal rights.