What Does It Mean To Be A Woman In Balochistan?
Author: Kristina Yildiz
Department: Women’s Rights Team
The society in Pakistan is highly patriarchal. Violence against women is one of the major violations of women’s human rights and a public health problem. According to The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 50 percent of women have no education and only 17 percent are employed. Women are more likely to be employed in agriculture. However, about a quarter of them are not paid for their work. They are less likely to have health insurance and access to health care (The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2019). In the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index, Pakistan ranked 167 out of 170 countries. The national score of Balochistan province in Pakistan was worse than the national score of Afghanistan that is ranked 170 (Women, Peace, and Security Index, 2021).
Pakistan comprises four provinces: Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan, and three territories: Islamabad Capital Territory, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir (National Assembly of Pakistan, 1973). Balochistan is the largest and less developed province of Pakistan where insurgencies have been fought since 1948 (Muzaffar et al., 2018). This separatist movement is rooted in a tense relationship with the Pakistani state (Ansari, 2014).
Naturally, the suppression of insurgency has caused human rights abuses. According to the Human Rights Watch, the military used torture and arbitrary detention as instruments of coercion. It is also reported that security forces engaged in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings to counter political unrest in Balochistan (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Every month the Human Rights Council of Balochistan receives reports on dozens of cases of enforced disappearances throughout the province (Human Rights Council of Balochistan, 2022). It is estimated that in the period 2003 to 2012, 8000 people were abducted by Pakistani security forces (The Economist, 2012).
The prolonged separatist conflict has worsened the everyday life of women. Various types of gender-based violence, such as child marriages, honour killings, walwar are prevalent in the region. Women in Balochistan constitute half of the population and yet they are deprived of political, cultural, economic and social rights. In 2021, a total of 129 incidents of violence were recorded in the province (Zafar, 2022). Mothers feel insecure as their children are raised in a warlike situation. The dangerous environment limits women’s participation in society, because they tend to stay at home. Considering the negative effects of the war on economic security, women might be forced to engage in illegal and often unsafe occupations (Khan et al., 2017). As reported by Human Rights Watch, women are often employed without contract and tend to be the victims of abuse and exploitation (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Despite the fact that Balochistan is rich in natural resources like gas, coal, oil and gold, it is also one of the most undeveloped regions in the world. Baloch women have to cook food on an open fire, although one would believe they would have access to the gas, considering that Balochistan is a major gas producer in the country (Balouch, 2021).
Balochistan province has the lowest female literacy rates in the world. According to the Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey, seven out of ten women and girls in the province have never been to school (Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey, 2016). Women and girls have extremely poor access to education. There is a limited number of middle-school facilities where they could possibly continue their education. In addition to that, the schools are often very far and it can be dangerous for them to take a long trip. The pressure from patriarchal families can also force them to quit learning (News Desk, 2020).
Female labour force participation in Balochistan is only 5.06 percent of the total population of women in the province, which is the lowest in Pakistan and one of the lowest in the world. Paid labour could empower women economically and improve their social status. However, considering the lack of education and access to paid labour, a high percentage of women and girls are married before the age of twenty. It should be noted, however, that child marriages are already criminalised in two Pakistani provinces: Punjab and Sindh. A bill to outlaw this practice was also presented in Balochistan, but since the provincial assembly consists of mostly male members, it went unentertained (Suleman, 2021).
Another challenge for the Baloch women is access to quality medical facilities, which is especially crucial for pregnant women. Most of them are likely to give birth in unhygienic facilities without a doctor. This supports the sorrowful statistics that about 785 out of 100, 000 women die when giving birth in Balochistan in comparison to 272 in the rest of the country (Suleman, 2021). The same can be applied to abortion, which is legal only in very limited circumstances (Guttmacher Institute, 2020). Women have to seek help from some quacks since the doctors prefer to avoid possible negative consequences (Khan et al., 2017). As a result, the women’s health and life are severely affected.
On International Women’s Day 2018, the Pakistani women started the Aurat March that is now held every year. The manifesto of the march demands provision of maternity leave, implementation of labour rights and economic justice. It also calls for recognition of women’s participation in the production of food and cash crops, inclusion in educational institutions, access to safe air and drinking water and an end to forced disappearances among many other things. The participants also march in support of those women who experienced harassment and violence in public spaces, in the workplace, at home, and from security forces (Dawn, 2019). This year the Aurat March issues a new manifesto that focuses on the inclusion of women in policing; the implementation of laws to protect transgender people; an overhaul of the justice system; increased health funding for victims of gender-based violence and the inclusion of mental health in the state’s free health care scheme (Salman, 2022).
The Aurat March in Pakistan has been facing hostility from the state, with participants being attacked with stones and threatened to be beaten by a mob. This year the minister of religious affairs of Pakistan demanded to cancel the events marking the International Women’s Day and to rebrand March 8 as “Hijab Day”. He also called the declaration of International Women’s Day’s activities “un-Islamic” (O’Donnell, 2022).
Notwithstanding the prolonged conflicts, the oppression of their human rights and “anti-women” government, Baloch women are also the ones who lead the protests against the continued extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and human rights violations (Baloch, 2021). In November 2021 they joined protests in Gwadar, Balochistan where the local fishermen had been deprived of earning an income due to a ban on border trade. Moreover, it was noted that for the first time in the history of Balochistan such a large number of women and children took to the streets (ANI, 2021). Recently, women demanded different political parties in Balochistan to issue tickets to women candidates for general seats. According to one of the participants, this initiative could give the rest of the world the message that women should be given equal opportunities by the political parties in Pakistan (Salamat, 2022).
The tribal culture that exists in Balochistan significantly reinforces the barriers for women that already exist all over the country. The society in Balochistan is male-dominated and as a result, there is a perception that the woman becomes harmful to the society if she gets empowered. The problems in the province must be addressed at the root: women should get access to education, health care, and employment. Only together with women can men improve the quality of human lives.
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 In tribal usage walwar (the bride price) is the right of the father or brother to receive for his daughter or sister’s marriage (Atayee, 1979).