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Monday, 6 May 2019

Women activists and their turn to the courts

By Ayesha Khan

Hina Jilani, a renowned lawyer and leading activist in Pakistan's women's movement speaking at World Conference of Women's Shelters, 2015
Photo Courtesy: Hina Jilani


Women’s activists in Pakistan have a strong tradition of turning to the courts to advance their rights, and in the process edifying the courts, government, public and media along the way. Along with my colleagues Sara Malkani (an advocate of the High Court and representative of the Center for Reproductive Rights) and Zonia Yousuf at the Collective, we have spent many months collecting documentation and conducting interviews with activists (mainly members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF)) to understand how and why they have turned to the courts even during very dark periods in our nation’s history.

Naysayers (and there is no shortage of them here) would argue, why bother with a corrupt judiciary and an even more corrupt political establishment? No one really believes in the rule of law! True, even Prime Minister Imran Khan recently promised to preserve the jirga system in erstwhile FATA even after the Supreme Court explicitly declared tribal jirgas unconstitutional in January this year. This final judgment from Saqib Nisar ended a story that began with activists petitioning against jirga in Sindh, which declared them unconstitutional in 2004, and followed with petitions to the Supreme Court filed by the National Commission on the Status of Women (2012) and the KP government (2018), all invoking our fundamental rights (including Article 10A, right to a fair trial) and demanding women’s protection from customary practices, honour killings, and other crimes sanctioned by this retrogressive remnant of our so-called culture.

But if you were a woman in Pakistan, and found yourself accused of zina during the 1980s, you surely would have wanted Asma Jahangir or Hina Jilani to fight for you and invoke, as they often did, Article 25 (equality of citizens) and Article 4 (right of individual to be dealt with in accordance with law) of your fundamental rights in your defence. You would surely be relieved to know they won almost all of their thousands of cases before it became virtually impossible to file charges of zina when the law was finally amended in 2006.

And if you were Rukkaiya Iqbal, filing the first ever case under the new 2013 domestic violence law in Sindh, surely it would be a profound relief to see your abusive husband jailed and sentenced for his years of violence towards you, and you would be grateful that Karachi advocate Sara Malkani believed in the courts enough to argue your case even though it would be the first time the judge had ever heard of the new law.

We all know that rape trials almost never end in conviction, but since activists fought so hard, despite protestations from the Council of Islamic Ideology, to have the law changed, politicians finally passed the 2016 Anti-Rape Law to make DNA testing mandatory in cases of rape. This, too, was on the back of a constitutional petition on the use of DNA testing, filed by Salman Akram Raja and activist Tahira Abdullah in 2012, to mandate improvement in investigation and trial procedures. Now it is hard to believe there was ever any argument about the admissibility of DNA as evidence.

And it bears mentioning that an adult woman’s right to marry out of her own free choice was fiercely contested in the 1990s, when the cases of Saima Waheed, Humaira Butt, and two hundred others were heard by the Lahore High Court, while the media and public alike were transfixed by the spectacles of these young women turned on by their fathers for refusing to be married off against their will? Patriarchal authority was on trial during those years, and it didn’t fare too well as lawyers Jahangir and Jilani used Articles 25 (right to equality) and Article 35 (protection of family) to defend women’s right to choose. Ultimately they won their cases, and the Supreme Court gave a final ruling in 2004 upholding this right. But, are we really still talking about this in the 21st century?

Believe it or not, activists were swimming against a turbulent tide of public and media indignation over the daughters who defied their parents, but thankfully we seemed to have moved on to other issues. Among them is the right of a woman giving birth not to die or be injured for life in the process. In 2015 Malkani filed a petition on behalf of activist Sheema Kermani’s theatre group Tehrik-e-Niswan, Dr Shershah Syed and Kiran Sohail in the Sindh High Court (SHC). She argued that women who suffer from debilitating obstetric fistula (a rupture caused by prolonged labour due to inadequate emergency health care services) have their rights to life and dignity violated and the Sindh government must properly implement its maternal and neonatal and child health programme to end this entirely avoidable and debilitating injury.

In February this year, the SHC recently ordered fistula repair centres to be established in four district hospitals in Sindh, and all reports suggest the government is responding promptly. Certainly justice delayed is somewhat better than denied altogether.

This is just part of the story about women’s strategic use of the courts. WAF member and lawyer Shahla Zia filed the most important environmental public litigation case in our history in 1992, against WAPDA for inflicting damage upon life and citizens, and won it in the Supreme Court two years later. Her achievement was to have the right to a clean environment recognized as part of our inviolable right to life, leading to the first Pakistan Environmental Protection Act in 1997.

The tone of our recent 2018 elections was altogether different from any previous one, for many reasons. One was because new laws had ruled out the possibility of banning women in communities from voting, a practice favored by the religious right and their friends in some parts of the country. This was the result of petitions filed as far back as 2001, when activists protested against the conduct of elections in district Swabi, and later again in 2015 against bans in Lower Dir. While the latter petition is still pending in the Supreme Court, the Election Commission of Pakistan got the point and helped politicians to ensure the 2017 electoral reforms contained a provision requiring at least ten percent of women in each constituency to caste their vote for the polling to be valid.

And the story doesn’t even end here, as I have yet to refer to the cases about other petitions regarding missing persons, arbitrary detentions, bonded labourers, non-Muslims’ right to divorce, and more. Until next time.


This blog is based on research conducted as part of our work with Action for Empowerment and Accountability, a programme supported by UK Aid and conducted in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

Friday, 29 March 2019

BISP, Citizenship and Rights Claims in Pakistan

By Rehan Rafay Jamil

A focus group discussion with BISP beneficiaries in Chatto Chand, Thatta.
Photo credits: CSSR's field research team


Taking Stock of Ten Years of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP)

Over ten years since its establishment, the Benazir Income Support Progamme (BISP) has become Pakistan’s largest social safety net, providing coverage to over 5.6 million women and their households across the country. The expansion of BISP over the past decade marks an important shift in social policy in Pakistan. BISP has now been overseen by three elected governments and has resulted in a significant increase in federal fiscal allocations for social protection. Despite vocal reservations about its name expressed by some political parties, the program remains Pakistan’s largest flagship poverty alleviation program with international recognition.[1]

Third party impact evaluations of BISP have largely focused on its poverty alleviation, nutritional and gender empowerment impacts.[2] [3] These evaluations point to important reductions in poverty and improved nutritional levels for beneficiaries and their households. Oxford Policy Management’s 2016 evaluation finds reductions in BISP households’ reliance on casual labor and an increase in household savings and asset accumulation.[3]

BISP is one of the largest cash transfer programs targeted exclusively at women in the Global South, making the gender impacts of BISP important to understand. In their evaluation, Ambler and De Brauw (2017) find some changes in gender norms and attitudes amongst beneficiaries and their families. Their study finds that female beneficiaries are more likely to have greater mobility to visit friends without their spouse’s permission, are less likely to tolerate domestic violence and male members are more likely to contribute to household work.

BISP and the transition from Cash Transfer Beneficiaries to Citizens

The evaluation reports provide some evidence that BISP has also had a wider set of intended and unintended consequences in influencing beneficiaries’ access to public institutions and spaces. Perhaps the most frequently cited impact of BISP has been a marked increase in rural women’s access to computerized national identity cards (CNICs), a prerequisite for obtaining the program. CNICs can be seen as the first step to citizenship and rights claims in Pakistan. The most significant impact of the rapid increase in CNIC registration amongst BISP beneficiaries has been with regards to voting. Ambler and De Brauw (2017) find evidence that BISP beneficiaries are more likely to vote in national elections. But whether BISP beneficiaries are empowered by the cash transfer to make a wider set of rights claims and access local state services, is less clear.

In order to understand some of the changes brought about by BISP in the lives of rural women, I conducted qualitative field work, including in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with beneficiaries and their spouses, in the district of Thatta in Lower Sindh. Thatta has a high proportion of BISP beneficiaries (47 percent), being a high poverty district. The aim of the fieldwork was to develop an understanding of how beneficiaries and their families perceive of BISP and whether the program has brought about any changes in their engagement with local state services.

Beneficiaries’ Perceptions of BISP and the State

One of the most striking findings of the fieldwork was the gendered differences in the perceptions of BISP between beneficiaries and their male household members. The beneficiaries we interviewed were engaged in limited agricultural or domestic labor. They invariably associated the program most closely with Benazir Bhutto, at times even reporting the funds being directly from her and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Responses amongst adult male household members were more varied, with some attributing the program to the Benazir Bhutto or the PPP, while others answered it was a federal government program. A handful of male respondents interviewed believed the program was funded by donor agencies.

Voting preferences and Clientelism

Despite the fact that many respondents in Thatta identified BISP closely with Benazir Bhutto or the PPP, my research found little overt evidence of the program being used for clientelistic purposes. Beneficiaries and their families reported very low levels of interference of politicians in beneficiary selection. Although a substantial number of households reported grievances about other poor households not obtaining the cash transfer, when asked in follow up questions if political connections could help people enroll in the program, the vast majority of beneficiaries said no. Voting preferences of BISP beneficiaries, over time also reflected deeper affiliations to political parties or specific candidates. For example, BISP beneficiaries’ party preferences in Thatta tended to be split between the PPP and the influential Shirazi family, who sometimes contested elections independently or forged alliances with other larger political parties.

The Politics of Recognition and Access to Public Spaces

The most striking impact of BISP reported by beneficiaries and their households was changes in women’s mobility and access to public spaces. Women in rural settings in Pakistan typically have very circumscribed access to public spaces. While few beneficiaries interviewed reported going to state institutions such as Union Councils, police stations or district courts, the vast majority reported obtaining the BISP transfer directly and keeping a share of the transfer for themselves before sharing it with their spouses and families.

Beneficiaries and the male household members described long ques of hundreds of beneficiaries waiting at authorized branchless banking agents and commercial banks when the transfers are disbursed. Although the vast majority of female beneficiaries interviewed were either illiterate or had only a few years of formal schooling, their responses indicated a growing awareness about the disbursement timings, amounts and arbitrary cuts that local middle men would invariably extract for ‘assisting’ them in obtaining the transfer.

The vast majority of beneficiaries and their spouses reported feelings of dignity and pride in obtaining a BISP cash transfer and being recognized by the state as rights bearing citizens. These preliminary findings suggest a gradual shift in both beneficiaries’ perceptions and access to public spaces and services, even if their wider engagement with the local state remains limited.



[1] Gazdar, H. (2011). Social Protection in Pakistan: In the Midst of a Paradigm Shift? Special Article. Volume 46 No. 28. Economic and Political Weekly.
[2] Ambler, K., De Brauw, A. (2017). The impacts of cash transfers on women’s empowerment: learning from Pakistan’s BISP program. Social protection and labor discussion paper; no. 1702. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
[3] Cheema, I., Hunt, S., Javeed, S., Lone, T., & O’Leary, S. (2016). Benazir Income Support Programme – Final impact evaluation report: Oxford Policy Management.




Monday, 18 March 2019

The Plight of Domestic Workers in Pakistan

By Kabeer Dawani

Photo credit: Facebook.com/Maid2Shop

One aspect of the Aurat March 2019 which, amidst the backlash from the patriarchy, did not receive much attention was female domestic workers coming out in significant numbers to ask (among other things) for their right to fair compensation. As seen above, they asked, “Do you pay your domestic workers the minimum wage?”

This is not an unreasonable question, but the fact of the matter is that, as a society, we don’t treat our labour well. This is true for labour across sectors (agricultural, industrial, and the service sector). Labour laws are routinely circumvented, and state enforcement of those laws is lax at best. (For example, see this recent report by Human Rights Watch documenting egregious violations in the garments industry.)

Domestic work, however, is perhaps one of the most exploitative forms of labour. Globally, the ILO estimated that domestic work is the number one form of forced labour in 2017. There is little research on Pakistan specifically. In one of the only studies on domestic work in Pakistan, Haris Gazdar and Ayesha Khan find that some domestic labour arrangements “come very close to outright slavery” due to the bondage that is created by employees borrowing in advance of their salaries.

This is just one form of exploitation however. As the Tayabba torture case demonstrated, other issues abound: child labour is rampant; there is widespread verbal, sexual and physical abuse, including inhumane work hours; and wages for domestic workers are far below minimum wage. In short, they do not have human dignity.

In particular on the minimum wage, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) can be used to provide an illustration of what is a startling picture. In 2017-18, more than half of those employed earned a monthly wage that was below the minimum wage of Rs.15,000. Specifically for the category ‘household employees’, the average wage is Rs.9,272. Most remarkable perhaps is the gender wage gap: female domestic workers earn Rs.6,098, almost two-thirds below the legal minimum wage and more than half of what men earn. It is thus clearly also a gendered issue.

Further, on such low income, it is no surprise that these workers have to take on insurmountable amounts of debt, are not able to send their children to school, and suffer from poor nutrition and health outcomes.

Are Domestic Workers Entitled to a Minimum Wage?

When you ask someone if they pay their domestic workers minimum wage, their response is usually a self-serving justification that domestic workers don’t fall under minimum wage laws. This is, unfortunately, largely true (but no less morally reprehensible).

Until a few months ago, no legislation existed across Pakistan for the protection of domestic workers. Although the Senate passed a bill a few years ago, this has not yet been enacted by the National Assembly. It was only at the end of January 2019 that legislation formalizing domestic workers was passed in Punjab. This Act criminalizes work below the age of 15, stipulates that domestic workers must be paid minimum wage as set by the Minimum Wage Board, and includes several benefits, such as sick and maternity leave and pensions. The legislation is progressive and unprecedented in Pakistan. Indeed, no other province has formalized domestic work yet.

While legislation will not change things overnight, and there are serious issues of implementation, it sets an important direction for a more equitable Pakistan. In a setting where market power determines wages – and employers have all the power – legislating for a minimum wage (and ideally a living wage) for domestic workers also creates the baseline for changing social norms. One hopes the other provinces can follow Punjab’s example sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, taking care of those who literally take care of you, your children, and your home should be the humane thing to do, even if it isn’t the legal thing to do. I would like to end by quoting from a superb recent essay in the New York Times by Princeton Sociologist, Mathew Desmond, in which he powerfully illustrates the human impact of higher minimum wages:

“A $15 minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect.”

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Challenges of Empowerment for Women in Politics: Resources, Voice and Agency


By Zonia Yousuf Baltistani
Source: publicdomainfiles.com


In today’s development context the notion of women’s empowerment has replaced a more confrontational and political discourse of women’s rights. With major development frameworks, like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the demand for gender equality through women’s empowerment and inclusiveness has gained currency; the idea is to leave no one behind.

I believe this approach has transformed empowerment into a creative force; a resourceful power which is used to achieve and to accomplish. Scholars like Naila Kabeer, view empowerment in terms of the means that allow women to make strategic life choices: access to resources, enhanced voice and increased agency. In light of this understanding, how much (or little) has changed for women in politics? How empowered are women in politics in Pakistan?

It is safe to say that changes in the political arena have led to an increased number of resources that woman politicians have at their disposal. The Parliament itself, through an Act, created the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS), which provides research and capacity building services to all parliamentarians. Various workshops and trainings have been conducted by PIPS specifically for female parliamentarians to realize their leadership potentials and enhance their jurisdictive abilities.

The institute not only responds to research requests from parliamentarians but also aids them in the process of making informed legislative decisions by conducting comparative studies, offering bill drafting services, assisting in developing parliamentary committee reports, talking points, background papers and policy briefs. The institute conducts a Parliamentarians Orientation Program for newly elected members to familiarize them with the procedures of the parliament along with more specialized trainings such as annual pre and post budget seminars which aim to better equip the parliamentarians for deliberations on the budget. Female parliamentarians are equal participants in all activities. Further, the political parties in Pakistan are largely structured to have women wings as an inclusionary measure.

Policy changes leading to reserved seats for women, 10 per cent requirement of women’s voter turnout, five per cent reserved general seats for women, creation of gender-centric supporting bodies like the national and provincial Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses and the national and provincial Commissions on the Status of Women, have increased the participation of female politicians leading to more inclusion.

However, our research with 200 female parliamentarians (2013-2018) from the National Assembly, Senate and the Provincial Assemblies revealed that female parliamentarians continue to operate in hostile environments. There is still a considerable amount of silencing and exclusion that these women face within their parties as well as on the floor of the parliament. The following table describes findings from the survey indicating that women in politics are subject to various forms of sex- based discrimination and harassment:


Findings from interviews with key informants uncovered that women parliamentarians are on occasion either physically excluded from meetings and discussions or encounter a suppression of their voices when present. Their voice is minimally included in party polices, even when decisions regarding their own political careers are being made by the party.

Our study divulges that despite the available resources, female politicians continue to lack space and agency (excluding a few exceptions to the norm). The agency of women in Caucuses to legislate on women’s issues is constrained by party policies which is why they might not be able to vote in favor of progressive legislation for women. The unsuccessful attempt to pass the domestic violence bill in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the last government is one such example.

Despite the existence of women’s wings, female politicians are not adequately represented at decision making levels; most political parties do not have women as top leadership. Women wings are used as campaigning bodies for male candidates rather than training grounds for women candidates to run in their own right. The findings from the interviews indicate that women politicians aren’t treated at par with their male counterparts by the party leaders.

The dearth of voice and agency can be causally linked to an absence of accountability within political parties. Even though frameworks to ensure female participation exist, there is a lack of internal accountability mechanisms within political parties. For example, Ayesha Gulalai’s sexual harassment charges were never formally investigated within Parliament or her party. The concept of women’s empowerment, particularly within the political domain, needs to be coupled with the notions of transparency, accountability, democratic decision making and rule of law.


Monday, 28 January 2019

Using wood as fuel

By Hussain Bux Mallah
A rural woman cooking roti using firewood as fuel
Photo credit: Wasim Gazdar

Recently, the PTI government rolled out 350,000 hectares of forests under the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project in KP. Given the applause that it received from national and international media, the newly elected government at the centre launched a tree plantation drive ‘Plant4Pakistan’ across the entire country. While this is likely to have positive implications for climate change, the resources invested in this project will provide little direct benefits to the poor. The impact of pollution on their health can be reduced if more investments are made in cleaner fuel.

Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-13 survey reports that majority of rural population has limited access to cleaner energy sources such as natural gas. According to Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES) 2015-16, a major share of fuel and lighting expenditure in rural households is incurred on firewood. About 31 percent of the fuel expenditure is on firewood, 8 percent comprises of dung cakes, 2 percent is coal, charcoal and kerosene and 9 percent is gas (via pipes or cylinders). A number of these fuel sources lead to high levels of pollution.

Even within poor households, pollutants from fuel affect the vulnerable the most. Our fieldwork in rural areas of Sindh found that preparing kitchen fuel and cooking are gendered activities. Collection of fuel is also time consuming, particularly for women and children. Many adolescent girls are withdrawn from school to help in domestic chores especially those relating to cooking. They also have to travel long distances to fetch wood.

Household Air Pollution (HAP) from cooking fuel is associated with a modest increase in child mortality. Women and adolescent girls are most vulnerable to health risks because of their exposure to smoke resulting from burning of firewood which releases carbon monoxide. Infants are particularly susceptible to diseases which can cause premature deaths. The study also provides the link between HAP and low birth weight, neonatal, post-neonatal deaths. Various chronic diseases are also associated with HAP including pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma.

Women’s exposure to smoke increases when they have to cook inside rooms during monsoon season. A household needs more fuel in windy, rainy and cold weather requiring women to heat water for their male members. Most women do multiple activities at a time, for example, cooking and breastfeeding are done simultaneously. In case of natural hazards such as floods, cooking becomes a high stressor for women.

Although tree plantation drives seem to be high priority areas of investment for governments, I strongly think that policymakers should also address the rights of the marginalized rural population using traditional energy sources. There is a need to increase access to cleaner sources like natural gas. A majority of rural areas are currently not connected to the gas supply system. Provision of gas pipelines is a federal subject and should be prioritized for improved health outcomes.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Towards a new regional agenda: bringing visibility to rural women in South Asia

By Saba Aslam
Women picking cotton in the fields, Sindh province
Photo credit: Wasim Gazdar
Across the world, women form an integral part of the agricultural sector. In much of South Asia, women make up a majority of the agricultural workforce, but the extent of their contribution remains unacknowledged in policy and public debates. They often undertake difficult physical labour, working long hours and are paid lower wages compared to their male counterparts if they are paid at all. LANSA research identified women’s agriculture work in South Asia as a critical mediating factor between household poverty and undernutrition. The recognition of women’s agricultural work and women as agricultural workers, moreover, was identified as a key entry point for leveraging agriculture for the improvement of nutrition.

LANSA research in India and Pakistan has already made a significant contribution to national debates and policy thinking on women agricultural workers. The ANH Academy Week in Kathmandu in 2017 offered an opportunity for taking this dialogue to the regional level. The advantages were clear. Despite many differences across the region – even within large countries such as India and Pakistan – there are many common strands that cross national boundaries. LANSA had already shown the value of collaborative research across these boundaries. It was also obvious that other researchers working on these issues had adopted comparable approaches and came up with similar findings. The diverse experiences across countries of engagements with policy and political processes also promised to be huge sources of insight and inspiration.

In 2018 LANSA was able to form a partnership with an influential global and regional stakeholder – namely UNWomen – to co-host a regional roundtable Recognizing the Rights of Women Agricultural Workers in South Asia: Roundtable on Policy, Politics and Impact. This was held in Bangkok in October 2018 and brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, including policymakers, representatives from governments, universities and research institutions, international organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs) and grassroots activists. The roundtable provided an exciting opportunity for the sharing of research findings and policy engagement experiences, and brought forward a new regional agenda that brings visibility to rural women’s rights.

A statement of joint recommendations was adopted by consensus by the participants to bring transformative change in the lives of women agricultural workers. This joint statement encapsulates a set of action recommendations that focus on policy, legal and programmatic changes to recognize, protect and promote the rights of women agricultural workers. It mirrors the voice of rural women who are excluded from many policy dialogues and lays out a range of provisions that women should receive from governments.

Legal recognition of women agricultural workers needs to be seen as a starting point, leading to ensuring that rights to equal and living wages, and the provision of social protection in the form of pensions, housing, childcare, free and quality healthcare including sexual reproductive health, education and maternity entitlements are established and enforced. The need to mobilise women agricultural workers and provide them a platform for discussion and articulation of their needs and demands, emerged as a strong component of the joint statement, given the near-total absence of such platforms, be it unions, associations or other forms of organisation.

Women agricultural workers’ voices need to be amplified across different fora – local, national and international. Policymakers, governments of all tiers, international agencies, local and community based organisations, communities and women agricultural workers themselves have to become a part of this regional agenda for women’s rights and benefits to be realized. The regional roundtable was one step towards recognizing the contribution of women agricultural workers and it ended on a positive and optimistic note. There was plenty of energy and commitment for continuing engagement with the issue.

*This blog was originally written for LANSA with inputs from Haris Gazdar and Nitya Rao