Woman of the year: the Pakistani mother
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.”
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.