The Disempowered Women Of Balochistan
“We don’t ask for all the basic rights, but we do ask for the right to agree or disagree. When a guy comes asking for my daughter’s hand, she should have the right to accept or decline,” Shar Bibi* unburdens her heart before me.
Shar Bibi is in her thirties and hails from the remote area of Dasht, Turbat. Being from a very backward and male-dominated part of Balochistan, she was deprived of education in her childhood. Her eldest daughter Gul Bibi was married before even she reached puberty. Needless to say, the child was also uneducated and married off without her consent. Shortly after, she passed away due to a pregnancy-related problem.
Shar Bibi’s second daughter is still very young to have a spouse. Like her mother and late elder sister, she doesn’t go to school, but helps in the household chores. Shar Bibi deeply fears for her second child.
“I fear that I might lose her like Gul BiBi,” Shar Bibi laments, eyes brimming with tears.
There is a high mortality rate among women in Balochistan. Many different factors account for it. According to Shar Bibi, illiteracy is the major problem. She believes that with education, women can have more control over their lives, leading to a healthier and more prosperous society as a whole.
Shar Bibi is far from being alone in her worries. Hania, a forty-three-year-old mother of three young daughters, is downcast about her daughters’ future. “There is not a single school for girls in our village. Nobody has ever bothered to think about my girls. Everyone is so caught up in believing that sending a girl child to school would be tantamount to taking away society’s honour.”
Of the twelve million large population of Balochistan, nearly 43 percent is female. Balochistan has the highest female mortality rate, as well as the highest unemployment and illiteracy among women anywhere in Pakistan. According to an estimate, the average literacy rate among women in Balochistan is only 26 percent, which drops to an abysmal two percent in the villages.
Shar Bibi also told me that every political party that runs its campaign in her village put education as one of their top agendas in their manifestos. However, once they are brought to power, they all forget their promises.
A report by UNICEF estimates 60 to 70 percent of all children in Balochistan to be out of school. A large reason for this is the distance of the nearest school from people’s houses. In a report by Alif Ailaan, it is shown that a child has to cover a distance of 30 kilometers to reach a primary school. In order to go to a middle school, the child has to travel 270 km, whereas to reach a high school, she has to travel an unbelievable distance of 370 km.
The report also provides figures for (and the drastic difference in) the number of girls enrolled in primary (165,869), middle (44,076) and high school (20,015). A recent study by the Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey shows that out of 10 women in the province, seven don’t receive schooling.
Naturally, as a result, there is an abysmally low rate of employment for women. According to a recent study, 96 percent of the educated women in Balochistan cannot secure jobs.
But even more than these huge disadvantages, many women in Balochistan are even forbidden to step out of their houses altogether.
A female student (one of few) from the University of Turbat, on condition of anonymity, tells me, “Baloch society is very backward and conservative. There are limitations on individual freedoms. Our cultural norms prohibit women to set foot outside their houses. Interestingly, we have also got plenty of men who feel disrespected if someone comes to know the name of their wives or sisters outside their family.”
Many places in Balochistan also don’t have proper healthcare systems. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people flock to cities, that are miles away, like Karachi, to have better healthcare facilities. Pregnant women are also referred to big cities but many breathe their last on the way there. A lot of patients are also attended by unskilled midwives resulting in death.
The Pakistan Health Demographic Survey (PHDS) terms long distances, poor transportation system and acute shortage of healthcare facilities nearby as the sole reason of the whopping fraction of pregnancy-related deaths. The report states that, with 785 deaths for every 100,000 women, Balochistan leads the country in maternal mortality rate.
The remedy to all of these problems is education. Men must realise that the primitive notion of constraining women indoors needs to be uprooted if we are to improve our conditions in any respect.
The government also needs to prioritise the female education sector, not merely chalking out master plans and passing resolutions in the legislative bodies, but ensuring that these laws are implemented in letter and spirit. Meanwhile, there is also an urgent and equally important need to invest funds in primary healthcare.
The government needs to open its eyes to the violation of human rights and the gross subjugation of women that is keeping them continuously downtrodden and powerless. This situation needs to be rectified now.
* Names have been changed to keep privacy.