Woman of the year: the Pak­istani mother

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY RAFIA ZAKARIA

It is an un­en­vi­able ex­er­cise, to write about one tragedy in the midst of another. As Pak­ista­nis pick up the pieces from Pe­shawar, col­lect the con­do­lences, as­sess the help­less­ness and avert their eyes from what is at best a fee­ble fu­ture, there is the task of as­sess­ing the year gone by. And within this yearly ex­er­cise is the job of tak­ing mea­sure of the year for the coun­try’s women.

Was it a good year for them? Were they de­fined by the Pak­istani girl that won the Nobel Peace Prize or by the Pak­istani woman who was stoned on the steps of a court­house? Was it a year of suc­cesses or losses, more joy or more tears, more hope­ful­ness or more re­gret?

To be­gin the task of weights and mea­sures; there are num­bers. More men than women are born in Pak­istan — 105.7 boys born for ev­ery 100 girls. Of the girls that man­age to sur­vive, roughly 40 per­cent will not be lit­er­ate, and will never learn to write their name or read a book or sign a doc­u­ment. It may be an un­let­tered life, but it is likely to be a longer one — life ex­pectancy for the Pak­istani fe­male has risen from around 53 years in 1970 to about 66.4 years.

Nearly 150 of them buried their chil­dren in this the last month of the year, and no as­sess­ment of women can be com­plete with­out sa­lut­ing the courage of th­ese moth­ers. If war has de­fined Pak­istan’s pol­i­tics in 2014, the re­silience of the Pak­istani mother has been its least saluted con­stituency.

With the fu­ner­als of chil­dren tear­ing the hearts and minds of the coun­try, it be­fits that the last mo­ments of 2014 be de­voted to re­mem­ber­ing just that.

More than 75 per­cent of Pak­istan’s fe­male pop­u­la­tion will be moth­ers dur­ing their life­times; they will bring chil­dren into the riven re­al­ity of a coun­try that can pro­vide few guar­an­tees for them. If any words can de­fine the con­di­tion of the coun­try’s women, they would be the words of head­mistress Tahira Qazi, who told the Tal­iban gun­men who en­tered the school: “Talk to me, I am their mother.”

Young Moth­ers

Many Pak­istani women who be­come moth­ers are chil­dren them­selves. A re­cent study dis­closed that over half of mar­ried Pak­istani women be­tween the ages of 20 and 24 were mar­ried be­fore they turned 18. Even this is some progress, how­ever, the av­er­age age of mar­riage has gone up from 13.3 years in the 1950s to about 23 years cur­rently.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the youngest moth­ers are the poor­est and least lit­er­ate, liv­ing in the coun­try’s ru­ral ar­eas where they have lit­tle or no ac­cess to health­care. Only 20 per­cent of the poor­est Pak­istani moth­ers had any med­i­cal care when they gave birth, com­pared to over 77 per­cent of the coun­try’s wealth­i­est.

Like ev­ery­thing else, the land­scape of moth­er­hood in Pak­istan is de­fined by class, by the luck of those who have much, against the for­tunes of those who have almost noth­ing at all. The Pak­istani mother will bear 3.8 chil­dren dur­ing her lifetime, one of the high­est rates in the world. In ma­ter­nal health, Pak­istan ranks above only above Afghanistan in the en­tire world. Only a quar­ter of Pak­istani moth­ers have ac­cess to any kind of con­tra­cep­tion.

Those that tend to the moth­ers were also tar­gets this year. Mem­bers of Pak­istan’s Lady Health Work­ers be­came tar­gets, many were moth­ers them­selves and oth­ers tended to women who were moth­ers; of­ten pro­vid­ing the only health­care that ru­ral Pak­istani women are able to re­ceive.

The Plight of ‘other’ Moth­ers

This by­gone year was also one in which a mother was sentenced to death. Asia Bibi, a mother of five, lost her ap­peal be­fore the La­hore High Court on Oct. 17 and her death sen­tence for blas­phemy was up­held. On Dec. 2 her lawyer filed a fi­nal ap­peal be­fore the Pak­istan Supreme Court. If her case is not heard, she will await the ex­e­cu­tion of her death sen­tence.

The Pak­istani woman stands very much in the midst of seas which were as tur­bu­lent in 2014 as they’re likely to be in 2015. There have been flashes of bril­liance, of sheer met­tle and spirit; awards and achieve­ments.

But any prom­ise or glint of hope is drowned out by the wail­ing of those close to 200 moth­ers, who ei­ther buried their chil­dren in Pe­shawar near the turn of the year, or are await­ing the mir­a­cle of health and hap­pi­ness for their bat­tered, in­jured chil­dren lan­guish­ing in hos­pi­tal wards.

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