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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Empowering Pakistani Women

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Pakistani journalist Nafisa Hoodhby on the many challenges facing the Islamic nation if they are to meet the goals recently outlined at the Cairo Conference on Global Population.


CURWOOD: The new mantra of world population policy is empowering women. It took its place as the number one priority of government and independent policy makers at the recent world conference on population and development in Cairo, displacing the traditional focus on contraceptives and economic development. But with the rhetoric quickly fading, the real challenge of putting the plan into practice lies ahead. And perhaps nowhere will it be more difficult than in traditional Islamic countries such as Pakistan. Pakistan's prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was one of the few Islamic heads of state in Cairo, where she took a leading role. At home, she's faced with the fastest growing population in southern Asia. Nafisa Hoodbhoy reports on Pakistani politics and social issues for the English language daily, Dawn. She says Bhutto faced a tough balancing act in Cairo, and faces a tougher one ahead.

HOODBHOY: Benazir Bhutto was trying to emphasize that she was a modern, progressive leader and would not be cowed down before fundamentalist threats. For the country I think she, too, tried to show that Pakistan was not a backward nation but could become a leader in the Muslim world. And that Pakistan was serious about implementing certain progressive social policies. Pakistan's population currently is 126 million, which is something like the 8th highest in the world.

CURWOOD: Pakistan has some pretty ambitious goals for stabilizing its population. Tell us what the government's trying to achieve and how.

HOODBHOY: Well, the government plans to control population by a 10% increase in contraceptive use by married women. In this manner, plans to avert 4.6 million births by 1998. So Pakistan would employ some of the methods used in Indonesia, which would be to send women health visitors to houses in the rural areas to impart family planning education.

CURWOOD: Government plan sounds pretty good. The notion of going from 6 or 7 children per woman down to 3 is certainly a laudable goal. What are the possible problems here? What's the likelihood of success?

HOODBHOY: Well, the biggest problem in Pakistan is the lack of funds. Last year, all foreign aid was cut off. Foreign aid to Pakistan has been linked with Pakistan's nuclear policy, and Pakistan has refused to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty on the ground that India hasn't signed it, either. And this caused over 500 family welfare centers and surgical centers to close down. The other problem is the general conservatism amongst the people, and there is a certain level of fundamentalist opposition even at the grassroots level.

CURWOOD: On the money question, my understanding has been that there has been some discussion since the Cairo conference between the United States and Pakistan about more aid. What do you know about that?

HOODBHOY: There's been a great deal written about this issue in the Pakistani press. When Benazir Bhutto went to Cairo, she apparently met with the US Vice President, Al Gore, who promised $10 million aid for Pakistan's social action program. Now, in Pakistan, the government says it has not received the money yet.

CURWOOD: What would be some of the essential characteristics for successful family planning programs, given the particular social context of Pakistan?

HOODBHOY: In Pakistan, one of the things that cannot be implemented is the talk about empowerment of women, which was at the heart of the Cairo conference. Instead, I think, Pakistan's family planning program will be confined much more to simply giving of contraceptives. And in that sense, even then, this is a very conservative society. And so the Pakistan government will have to convince the Islamic forces because this is a real fear in Pakistan, that family planning is actually aimed at cutting down the Muslim population.

CURWOOD: What's life like for women in Pakistan? Is it a safe society for them?

HUDBOY: Oh - Pakistan is certainly not a safe society for women. In a country where women can't walk out of the door, you know, without being chaperoned by a man, it's hardly likely that the streets will be safe for women. Only 3% of Pakistani women are currently in the work force, and very few women even venture out on the street. And if they do so, they do so veiled or half-veiled. There are numerous instances of murders and rapes. So there is no way that women are safe in this country.

CURWOOD: Yet in covering this issue we hear over and over again that empowerment of women is indeed key to stabilizing population. What's the first order of business, then, on this front in Pakistan?

HUDBOY: Well, in Pakistan we have a number of discriminatory laws. We have the laws of evidence in which 2 women's testimony is considered equivalent to that given by 1 man. The woman's evidence is not considered admissible in cases of rape. And Benazir Bhutto would first have to address doing away with discriminatory laws and getting women involved in the mainstream before talking about the empowerment of women.

CURWOOD: Nafisa Hoodbhoy is a reporter for the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn. She joined us from her home in Karachi.



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