International Day of Rural Women, Empowering the oft-neglected segment of society

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The nations which neglect women’s all-encompassing role in all spheres of society, ranging from homes to other societal institutions, neither can bring up new generations nor do they can fully exploit the resources of production. Resultantly, people keep groping in the dark and remain grappling with numerous problems ranging from ignorance and poverty to healthcare issues, unilateral decision-making, so on and so forth.

Women’s role in all spheres of society is often neglected in almost all countries of the world. However, the situation is far worse in developing and underdeveloped countries and an extreme disparity exists even in terms of provision of fundamental rights to rural and urban women. Although women from all backgrounds are relentlessly the victims of gender inequality all over the world, the life of rural women in developing societies particularly is synonymous with misery, turbulence and an unending struggle for survival. Since 2007 when the world’s urban population came at par with the rural one, there has been an unabated rise in the former, though the latter still has a significant presence, and rural women account for nearly fifty percent. To recognize these women’s role in rural societies and to attract the attention of all and sundry to solving their problems, the United Nations celebrates 15th of October every year as International Day of Rural Women.

Pakistan is listed among those countries where rural population far exceeds the urban one. An analysis of the data provided by the Islamabad-based National Institute of Population Studies (NIPS) reveals that up till 2015, Pakistan’s 58.80% population inhabited rural areas. Women’s population in Pakistan is significant because with a ratio of 48.35% the country is world’s sixth largest in terms of hosting women’s population. Moreover, in this big chunk, a whopping 59.21% of women belong to rural areas and they are 28.63% of country’s total population. FATA topped the list with 95.97% women living in rural areas, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (76.65%), Balochistan (64.12%), Punjab (60.31%), and Sindh (41.79%). While in Islamabad Capital Territory, 24.62% of women resided  in rural areas.

These figures and the plight of Pakistani women cry for the provision of equal rights to them especially because if they will be educated and empowered, they will not only vastly improve their own lives but will also bring positive changes to their families and societies at large. And, who knows this fact better than Pakistan where through their active role in agriculture and rural industry, women actually support the local economy. It is despite the fact that they have to spend more time in household chores and productive activities than their urban counterparts. For example, they give more time to activities like fetching water from miles away as well as wood for household use, looking after the kids and the sick and also cooking food for the members of their family. It is, indeed, a sheer lack of facilities and feeble infrastructure that makes their work more arduous and gruelling. Moreover, the socially assigned roles also deny them opportunities of seeking an independent source of income. Women and girls in Pakistan’s rural areas have to face a number of restrictions that, in effect, deny them even their fundamental human rights and brings all their efforts to improve their life standards to naught.

State of affairs regarding rural women’s fundamental right to education better presents the picture of gender inequality in Pakistan. As per Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLM) 2014-15, among rural women only 40% have some sort of schooling and only 31% have got education of primary level or more. What further aggravates the situation is that only 48% of girls falling in age bracket of 5-9 years are enrolled in primary schools while only 15% of girls between 10 and 12 years of age could go to middle schools. This ratio further drops in matriculation as only 9% of girls (13-14 years of age) get themselves enrolled in secondary schools. The crux of the matter is that literacy rate among rural girls of 10 years or more is merely 38%. When seen province-wise, this ratio is 17% in Balochistan, 24% in Sindh, 31% in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 45% in Punjab. The PSLM 2013-14 reports that 39% of girls aged between 10 and 18 years opined that parents forbid daughters to seek education and it is the biggest cause why they do not go to schools. Moreover, 14% of them believe that it is the costly education while 11% said that they did not attend school by choice.

There is no denying the fact that a woman is more likely to get a job and earn a higher wage if she has acquired basic education: one percentage point increase in female education raises the average level of GDP by 0.37 percentage points. Every additional year of primary school boosts girls’ wages by 10-20%. Besides, it discourages child marriages, makes women have fewer children and reduces the likelihood of violence against them. Educating women can be a crucial factor for decreasing mortality rate of children aged 5 years or more.

Despite this great importance of women’s education, the backwardness of our rural women further aggravates the state of affairs and the very first victim of it is their nutrition and reproductive health. As per the findings of the National Nutrition Survey (NNS) 2011, 50.9% of rural women and 50.5% of pregnant rural women are anaemic. And, with this deficiency, how could they bear healthy children. Hence, there are all possibilities that both mother and the child will be anaemic and will fall prey to various diseases.

The quality of reproductive health and a reasonable inter-pregnancy gap play a critical role in women’s health but every year thousands of women and infants in Pakistan become the victim of the lack of health facilities. The matter of women’s reproductive health gets even more important because in rural areas 68% women of 15-49 years of age are married. And, when seen province-wise, this ratio is even more. For instance, in Balochistan, the ratio of married women in the said age group is 74% followed by Sindh (73%) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab (both 67%). Similarly, the fertility rate among these women is 4.3; which is huge and the biggest reason behind this is insignificant use of family planning methods — only 27% of married rural women use contraceptives. High fertility rate means that a woman has frequent pregnancies for which paying attention to improving her reproductive health gets even more significant. At present, the matter of women’s reproductive health is quite serious and the principal causes behind are women’s own illiteracy and that of male members of their family as well as the outdated cultural traditions.

Seeking antenatal care during pregnancy is of great importance as it helps in identifying risk factors and the benefits of immunization, precautionary measures, childcare and the ways to nurture them. Moreover, it reduces the chances of maternal complications at a later stage and minimizes the chances of miscarriages and stillbirths. World Health Organization (WHO) advises women to have at least 4 checkups during a pregnancy in normal conditions. But, in Pakistan, the situation is alarming as PSLM 2014-15 reports that among rural women only 67% get medical checkup during pregnancy while only 25% in antenatal period. Only 70% pregnant women got vaccinated against tetanus.

Another aspect which warrants special attention is that in Pakistan’s rural areas nearly 59% childbirths are handled at home with Balochistan again at the top of the list with 71%, followed by Sindh with 62% while this ratio both in KP and Punjab is 57%.

Had the policymakers of our country paid attention to this sector, the deaths of 319 women among 100,000 in rural areas and 175 out of the same in urban areas each year would not have been possible. The picture these figures extracted from Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2006-07 present is that there is a big urban-rural disparity and the ratio of deaths during pregnancy is nearly double in rural women to that in their urban counterparts. This situation puts a big question mark on the efficacy of our systems.

The next victim of illiteracy of rural women is health and nutrition of their kids; the more educated a woman, the less chances of her child’s falling ill. Nevertheless, it’s also a reality that in developing countries children of below-5 age are 1.4 times more prone to death than their urban fellows. The state of affairs of rural children’s health as reported by PSLM 2014-15 is that in rural areas only 56% children of age 12-23 months are immunized. The situation regarding nutrition is also far from satisfactory because according to NNS 2011, 61.4% rural children are anaemic and height of 46.3 is shorter with respect to their age, 33.3% weigh less and 16.1% are underweight with respect to their height. These weak indicators of health bode ill for the children as the mortality rate among rural children is 106 per thousand.

The next outcome of women’s illiteracy is limited sources of income and insignificant prospects of their participation in decision-making processes. A wider research has proved that more income of mothers has positive impacts on their kids’ nutrition, education and health. However, it is also an undeniable reality that women are less employed in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors than men. They work as full-time or part-time employees and sometimes even as seasonal and underpaid workers. When it comes to wages, there exists a great disparity between men and women especially in developing countries. Moreover, women also work as a non-paid family worker and even work for longer hours than men. On the situation of rural women’s employment, the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey(PDHS) 2012-13 reports that 30.2% of married women (15-49 years) do jobs, 47.1% are linked with agriculture, 28.8% are free workers. And, the liberty of those who get some money for their work in spending is that only 47.2% of such women are free to choose on how to spend their money.

The picture of women’s participation in decision-making at their homes, as portrayed by the PDHS, is that 47.5% of married women are free to decide about their health; 42.9% are free to decide on purchasing items of daily use and only 45.8% can independently make decision on visiting relatives. This ratio of independence in all these three areas on an average is 34.5%. The state of affairs regarding right to own property is also deplorable as only 1.5% of these married women own a house and only 2% some agricultural land.

Illiteracy of rural women also results in violence against them. A multinational research conducted by WHO also corroborates this fact by saying that rural women face more violence than their urban counterparts. Portraying the picture of violence against women, the PDHS reports that 34% married women (15-49 years) have been facing violence for, at least, 15 years while those who face both psychological and physical violence are nearly 41.6%. And, 51.5 percent of them neither call somebody for help nor do they mention their plight to anyone.

Lack of facilities and weak infrastructure are also no less than a torment to our rural women. If social attitudes hinder the women’s access to education, then insufficient facilities are also making it harder for them. For instance, a research on girl’s education reveals that an increase of every half a kilometre of home-to-school distance causes a fall of 20% in girls’ enrollment. Who knows how many kilometres of distance are increased by non-availability of basic facilities and how many girls are being kept illiterate due to that. As per Pakistan Education Statistics 2014-15, prepared by National Education Information System of Ministry of Education and Professional Training, the number of educational institutes (Pre-primary to degree-awarding colleges) in public as well private sector stood at 180,406. As per the report, 33.48% of these institutions are women-only while 19% have coeducation system. Similarly, the weak and feeble infrastructure of health is also incapable of meeting with the requirements of a bludgeoning population.

The backwardness of Pakistan’s rural areas and the miseries of rural women are crying for media’s attention but the Pakistani media, unashamedly, highlights incidents of rape, violence against women and honour killing but do not bother to include in their content the rights of rural women, weak infrastructure, non-availability of basic facilities and outdated stinking social traditions. Unfortunately, the commercialism that has engulfed our media today has taken them away from their social responsibility of public broadcasting. The stories of our dramas revolve around the matters of love and rivalry, talk shows have become hostage to politics, and news most often are only statements. In the race for breaking news, channels sometimes show an utter disregard to journalism ethics. A sense of chaos and anarchy reigns supreme in media. While claiming for better TRPs and wider audiences, channels often forget that a big chunk of Pakistani population consists of those rural women who do not have access to reading newspapers or watching TV programmes. This fact has been mentioned in PDHM 2012-13 which says that among married women of 15-49 years of age, only 63.2% have some access to mass media and only 1.7% read newspapers, 2.4% listen to radio and 35.3% watch TV. This limited access raises many questions on the role of media as well. It seems that it is the fear found in media content and those related to it that after having access to education through media, women may develop rebellious trends.

If we actually want to be on the path that leads to development and progress then we must open the doors of education for our rural women in order to exploit fully their talents and skills. Moreover, we will have to improve our infrastructure, and above all,  change our thought patterns. This is the only door to prosperity and development we all long for.”

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