Thursday, 30 April 2015

Bringing real change for women

by Ayesha Khan

February 12, 1983, protesters being attacked by the police at the famous WAF demonstration in Lahore. Photo credit: Rahat Ali Dar

These thoughts were recently part of a talk I gave at IBA to a class of undergraduate Social Science students on issues in women and development.

The 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing, recognized that women’s empowerment was a social justice issue, valuable in its own right and not primarily a tool to further the goals of development. Feminists from around the world had been lobbying for years within the UN, their own governments and with other international organizations, to have their language of social transformation, the goal of feminism, adopted by the Conference.

Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister at the time, was a star presence. In the Beijing Platform for Action, signed by Pakistan, we agreed along with most countries on a manifesto, a blueprint for the empowerment of women. It covered 12 specific areas, such as poverty, health, education, conflict, human rights, and more. After the conference, dozens of NGO representatives along with government officials got together and developed a National Plan of Action to implement the commitments made in Beijing.

It was globally, domestically, and politically, one of the most promising moments in history to bring real change for women. But in the process, what began as essentially a struggle for radical social change - which is what feminism is - was swallowed up by the more conservative politics of social development, as articulated by powerful governments and their aid agencies. This does not mean that feminism is dead, it just means that it is time for some re-evaluation, twenty years after Beijing.

Empowerment – intrinsic or instrumental?

When the term “empowerment” was first used in the 1980s it referred to a profound kind of change, one that transformed societal relations. It was a political concept. In the Beijing Platform of Action most of the power of that concept was retained.

It removing all the obstacles to women's active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural decision-making. This means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities. Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also necessary and a fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace.

Much money has gone into pursuing some of the goals set out at Beijing, and progress has been mixed, but the feminist agenda no longer drives the discourse. Governments and powerful donor agencies fund the programmes meant to achieve these goals, and NGOs play a partnership and watchdog role in this process.

But the word “empowerment” has come to mean too many different things to powerful people in the development world. In the 1990’s it was “micro-credit, political quotas and girls’ education” all in one. It was a neoliberal tool that did not challenge the political order but could deliver just enough change to make everyone feel a bit better about the plight of women.

As Rosalind Eyben writes, it was the instrumentalist arguments for women’s empowerment that came back to dominate the development discourse, instead of the Beijing Declaration.

The new development “empowerment” discourse led, she writes, “to privileging a meaning of empowerment associated with formal institutions and individual autonomy” such as how the economic actor contributes to growth, rather than how to tackle issues related to decent work and the unpaid care economy, which lie at the heart of women’s inequality. Thus, “meanings of empowerment associated with solidarity and collective action are being crowded out.”

How ‘power’ was taken out of empowerment

In Pakistan, erratic steps were taken, such as increased political participation of women, with 33 percent reserved seats in national and provincial assemblies and local bodies. Donor organizations loved it, they funded NGOs lavishly to train women on how to participate in electoral politics, how to vote, how to demand their rights as citizens. But the irony was that women’s reserved seats were restored by General Musharraf’s government, which began as an illegal military coup that overthrew an elected government.

Pakistani activists were in a quandary: should their organizations support Musharraf’s move, take the funding and prepare women for their new role in politics, or refuse to play ball because Musharraf was fundamentally undemocratic. Feminism, after all, is premised on notions of social justice and democracy at its core.

This question cuts to the heart of the women’s movement in Pakistan, and issues like it still divide us until today.

Since the mid-1990s the Women's Action Forum, the rights movement that fought against General Zia’s discrimination against women, appears to have outlived its utility as a leader of the women’s movement, and a virtually apoliticized NGO movement has replaced it. This pleased the donors, who in any case do not wish to be confrontational with the government. On the one hand Musharraf clandestinely engineered the rise of the MMA in KP, on the other he set up the National Commission to protect the rights of women and allowed millions of dollars of funds for “gender equity” to come into the country from USAID.

A leading women’s NGO, Aurat Foundation, founded by WAF members, was faced with the difficult option: use the money to help women achieve various degrees of empowerment, at least under some informed guidance, or give it up to some other recipient who may not utilize it as well? It chose the former. Women’s empowerment by degrees, has won the day. If activists had chosen the other option – turning away funding for NGOs, they would be poor, political, and alone without influence in a hostile terrain.

Questions on social transformation

This has been considered. Nighat Said Khan, a member of WAF, used to bring up the question of founding a women’s political party to work as a pressure group and play a role in coalition politics in Pakistan. But every time the idea came up there was either no democracy in Pakistan, and when democracy was in place, WAF still lacked the resources and the links with political organizations on the ground to develop real constituencies.

Another option often discussed is how to revive WAF and/or bring women’s issues out of the NGO sector. This is not too different from what Eyben means by empowerment through solidarity and collective action, and how they have been forgotten in current development discourse. Nowadays women view their commitment to women’s rights as part of their nine to five job, but the real question remains – when one is working towards a political goal, one of real social transformation – will that ever be enough?

These questions, thankfully, are not just raised by us in Pakistan, they are relevant globally too. This leaves international feminism, and the whole endeavour of women’s activism in Pakistan in a very difficult position.


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