International Women’s Day made headlines throughout the Pakistan long before March 8, and this time Balochistan was not lagging behind. My WhatsApp groups were flooded with debates. Some demanded that Baloch women should not fall prey to all those “nasty” slogans – meaning calls for women’s rights, as seen in the annual Aurat March — while others called attention to historic stories that supposedly prove how “equal” Baloch culture and society have always been. Still others cited figures showing more women in the workforce and higher literacy rates than ever before.
But all this seemed overly self-congratulatory. There are definitely more Baloch women being educated and joining the workforce than ever before, but that is still a very small portion of their overall population. And in most of the traditional Balochi folklore, women hardly had a say — they conformed to what was decided for them by male members of the community. Hani, a famous character from one Baloch story, was forced married to Meer Chakar, the tribal leader. Mahnaz was accused of adultery and had to prove she wasn’t guilty. Sammul, an already married woman, had to listen to Mast Tawakali — and a man honored today as Sufi poet of Balochistan – sing poems for her without her consent. Sammul had to put up with that “tribute” until she died.
If still there are those who think Baloch society had always been equal, we must have moved backwards then. Often with time, societies move forward and become more progressive but there are also societies that go backwards with time and become more conservative. Is Balochistan one of them?
The fact that these WhatsApp groups may only have three or four women out of more than hundred members makes it easier to understand why such assumptions are being forced. It is just one small example of how women are all-but-invisible in society.
When a few young progressive Baloch women took to Twitter, posting #WhyWeMarch on International Women’s Day, a lot of comments and replies claimed that these are not “real” issues of women. If those complaints can’t be taken as “real,” let’s turn to the data to see the “real” story. The sad truth is that gender parity still remains out of reach in Balochistan and a conversation on gender equality is important.
Seven out of 10 women and girls around Balochistan province have never been to school according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey. That number has hardly changed over the years.
In a closely related statistic, only 18 percent of the total women in Balochistan are literate. The 82 percent illiteracy rate among women is the largest proportion in the country. A l of schools in most areas and cultural beliefs prevent girls from getting an education. That in turn prevents their economic empowerment throughout the province.
Female labor force participation in Balochistan is only 5.06 percent of the total population of women in the province, again the lowest rate in Pakistan (compared to 15 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 55 percent in Punjab, and 24 percent in Sindh). That doesn’t necessarily mean that these women do not contribute to the household, but unfortunately most of the work they do is unpaid labor.
Paid labor empowers women economically, which directly impacts their social status. In Balochistan where female labor force participation is among the lowest in the world, women’s status has remained unchanged for decades.
With few alternatives, nearly six in 10 women and girls alive today in Balochistan married before the age of 20 — the highest percentage of early marriage out of all of Pakistan’s provinces. According to experts, early marriages can be a result of illiteracy, poverty, and traditional practices – all of which dominate Balochistan. The discrepancy between the genders is stark: 56 percent of girls are married before they turn 20 compared to just 9 percent of boys.
Child marriages are criminalized in Sindh and Punjab already. In 2018, under the last provincial government, lawmaker Dr. Shama Ishaq presented a bill to outlaw this practice in Balochistan as well but it went unentertained by most (male) members. Current women members of the assembly say that this bill remains in notice but is still controversial because of some conservative parties.
Speaking of the provincial assembly, its portion of female representation in is abysmal. In the last assembly this number was slightly higher, although still low at 20 percent. But after the 2018 elections, it dropped to just 16 percent. Currently, out of 65 members only 11 are women. There are no elected female members and no women in the provincial cabinet. Women-centered issues are therefore hardly discussed or prioritized.
These issues can cost women in Balochistan their lives.
About 785 out of 100, 000 women die giving birth in Balochistan, as compared to 272 in the rest of Pakistan. Women in Balochistan hardly have access to family planning and antenatal care. Most of women are likely to give birth without a doctor or even a trained birth attendant. It is believed that accurate maternal mortality rates are not made public in Pakistan, so the number of deaths is likely to be underreported. Women’s healthcare has never been a priority for the government authorities and therefore most districts of Balochistan province, including the capital, do not have adequate healthcare services to reduce maternal mortalities.
In addition, at least 1,000 women are murdered annually in Pakistan for having “dishonored” their families, accounting for 20 percent of global honor killings. In 2018, out of 50 people killed in Balochistan in the name of honor, 30 were women. Even that is likely understating the true death toll, because honor killings are hardly reported in Balochistan. The fact that women have been murdered for centuries for “dishonoring” their families is often denied but the issue does exist. Unfortunately it is widely practiced to this day.
Social media battles and debates in the provincial assembly continue even while these statistics show the disturbing condition of women in Balochistan province. There is a deep misogyny running in the society – even if that fact is not accepted by most.
Mariyam Suleman is a freelance writer from Gwadar and holds a masters degree in sociology from University of Karachi. She tweets at @mariyamsuleman