Young women fight the ‘Talibanisation’ of rural Pakistan

Much attention has been focused on the process of radicalisation of young men in the areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Peshawar, the town near the border between the two countries, is infamous for being the centre of a vibrant industry and trade in homemade guns. For more than two decades, violence has become the dominant currency of almost every aspect of life in this area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, once known as the North West Frontier Province.

So it takes remarkable courage for a 16-year-old girl to decide to challenge how this culture of violence was reinforcing and strengthening the oppression of women. Eight years on, Gulalai Ismail, now a poised 24-year-old, is running two programmes of work – one on gender empowerment and the other on peacebuilding – from her home in Peshawar, where she grew up. Brought to London by Peace Direct, Ismail was talking to youngsters about her work.

“I set up Aware Girls when I was 16 because all around me I saw girls being treated differently to boys. My girl cousin was 15 when her marriage was arranged to someone twice her age; she couldn’t finish her education while my boy cousins were [doing so]. This was considered normal. Girls have internalised all this discrimination – a woman who suffers violence but doesn’t say anything is much admired in the village as a role model. A good woman submits to her husband or father.

“Aware Girls raised awareness of equal status. We did training that women have human rights, and taught leadership skills and how to negotiate within their families and with their parents to get education and to have control over their own lives.”

Ismail is well aware of how the position of women has deteriorated over the course of her life. “Peshawar used to be very progressive, but after “Talibanisation” it became much more conservative and life is more difficult for my younger sister than it was for me. Just going out to the market is difficult because of the sexual harassment.”

That kind of harassment makes organising training for young women particularly difficult. Ismail and her staff have to strive very hard with communities in the villages where they work to build trust that if daughters attend the training they will be safe. Parents worry that their daughters will be “westernised” and forget their “cultural values”. For a recent training course on political leadership to help boost the participation of women in politics, Aware Girls had to organise 20 local community meetings to identify the 30 girls who eventually went on the course. Working in remote rural areas requires considerable patience and time, but Ismail is not interested in the easier option of working only in urban areas.

It was the gender work that came first, but Ismail soon realised the close relationship between gender and peace. “In training, a woman told the story of how her 12-year-old son was taken away to Afghanistan by the militants, and 10 months later he was dead. That made me think that we must stop these young people joining the militants.”

The result was the Seeds of Peace network, which Ismail set up last year and which has trained 25 young people. They, in turn, will train another 20, to slowly expand a network across 10 districts of the province. She believes each person can reach 500 young people to promote tolerance and challenge extremism.

“They identify young people in the community who might be vulnerable to militants and they organise study circles to discuss the causes and consequences of conflict and the history of Talibanisation. We talk about tolerance for people of other faiths,” says Ismail.

Almost every aspect of children’s upbringing is affected by extremism. Even the school textbooks urge children to be ready for jihad, says Ismail, and all around are songs and films that glorify war, martyrdom and violence.

“Seeds of Peace aims to give another perspective by getting people to think about human rights. Peace is not just the absence of war, it is about respect and tolerance – and women have an important role in educating their children.”

Ismail is well aware that her work challenges the Taliban’s power, and that brings dangers. She is also aware that there are huge political issues involved in the radicalisation of the region where she lives, but believes that a grassroots community challenge to a culture of extremist intolerance is also a crucial part of the search for peace. Both high-level political negotiation and community participation are required in conflict resolution.

Peace Direct’s Ruairi Nolan backs up Ismail’s analysis of a peace process, using the analogy of political negotiation as the bricks and community engagement as the cement that hold the bricks together. Pointing to Northern Ireland’s experience, he suggests that several decades of community peacebuilding was a crucial precondition to the success of the political process that culminated in the Northern Ireland agreement.

At international conferences, Ismail has met counterparts from Uganda, Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world. Despite the very different forms of conflict, she can see plenty of similarities in the work they are doing – and she says that gives her hope.

Malaysia: Women vital source of resources – Yong

Deputy Works Minister Datuk Yong Khoon Seng has termed women as Malaysia’s vital source of human resources to spur its development.

He thus called on more women to assume leading roles to help the country achieve further breakthroughs.

“Women of today are no longer confined to the roles of wife and mother. Many of them have excelled in many areas such as politics, finance, industries and education,” he told a dinner marking the Kuching and Samarahan Divisions Chinese Women Association’s 63rd anniversary last Saturday.

Yong, who is Stampin member of parliament, said it was quite obsolete to insist that only a certain gender should serve in selected industries, particularly in this modern era.

He stressed that for as long as a person had the capability, the issue of gender should not get in the way.

“If the person has great knowledge in a certain field and is capable of discharging the duty, we shall by all means support the person to lead,” he said.

He noted that the women association was one of the earliest community-based organisations (CBOs) in the city.

Given its history, the association had played its part to elevate the social status of women besides enlightening them on their rights, he said.

He hoped that it would persevere in its undertakings so as to be able to organise more healthy programmes for members and the communities.

During the dinner, the association through Yong also handed out ‘angpow’ and goodies to eligible elderly members.

Singapore: Lim Hwee Hua to keep encouraging women to take part in politics

Her defeat in the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency electoral battle means that “the score (for female full Cabinet ministers) has now dropped back to zero again” but Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, said she would continue to encourage women to participate in politics.

Mrs Lim, who is concurrently Second Minister for Finance and Transport, is also optimistic that “it won’t be too long” before Singapore sees another female full Cabinet minister.

“For the two-odd years that I was a minister, I can see the positive impact that it’s had in terms of role-modelling, in terms of signalling to women out there that women can also play a key role in the highest levels of government,” said Mrs Lim, adding that she was “sure” this would be taken into consideration when the People’s Action Party (PAP) drew up the new Cabinet, or future ones.

Asked who among the current crop of elected women Members of Parliament (MPs) have the greatest potential to be appointed ministership – Ms Grace Fu and Dr Amy Khor have been mooted as possible candidates – Mrs Lim declined to pick a name, adding that her “personal strong belief” is that there should be no quota on the number of women ministers.

Mrs Lim, who heads the PAP Women’s Wing, said she would still contribute to women’s causes, particularly in work-life issues. She added: “Even though I may not be an MP anymore, I’m still someone who cares about the future of Singapore and I feel deeply about some of the challenges that women, especially working mothers, face. So I will look at the different ways that I can contribute.” Teo Xuanwei

Women power triumphs in state polls. What next?

The people’s verdict in the state elections of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu has put Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa in the chief minister’s chair. With Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, India will now have four women chief ministers — no mean feat for a country that usually associates politics with the male gender.

Still, the poll triumphs can’t hide that the road to women’s empowerment in India has plenty of bottlenecks. For one, critics of the Women’s Reservation Bill (which if passed will reserve one-third of parliament and assembly seats for women) have ensured the bill has remained on the table in the lower house of parliament.

And despite the examples of Indian President Pratibha Patil and Congress party head Sonia Gandhi, few can deny that the number of women in Indian politics is not commensurate with the corporate world where several Indian women hold sway over multinational companies.

Women’s liberation groups say that discrimination in politics is derived from the deep-seated hypocrisy of Indian culture, one where female deities are worshipped but women still have little say over their lives.

And that even in cases where suitable female candidates are available for national and state elections, the choice has gone in favour of a male candidate.

While the Congress party headed by Gandhi has only one woman chief minister in Dikshit, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t have any, despite its vocal support for the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Have things changed since the state polls? Are the election wins for Banerjee and Jayalalithaa a milestone for women’s empowerment in India? Share your views.

Only 7 women make it to Kerala state Assembly

Women got a raw deal once again in Kerala politics with just seven female aspirants getting elected to the state Assembly, the same as the last time.

The outcome has strengthened a general belief that Kerala is not yet free from “male-hegemony”, despite the state being projected as a role model for women empowerment.

The first Kerala Assembly in 1957 had six women members, when politics was dominated by men in most parts of India.

Out of the seven elected women this time around, the ruling UDF has just one representative, Congress’ P Jayalakshmi, who was part of the list drawn up by AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi. Jayalakshmi, elected from Manathawadi (ST) segment in Wayanad district, is among the ministerial probables as the only woman member on the ruling side.

According to T N Seema, Rajya Sabha member and leader of CPI-M’s women wing AIDWA, it can’t be glossed over that generally there is an “anti-women” attitude in all spheres in Kerala.

“As in other fields, male-hegemony is deep-rooted in politics also. No party is free from this,” Seema told PTI.

Women empowerment has gained some momentum at the local bodies level where 50 per cent of the seats are reserved for women.

But women who excel in politics and governance are not allowed to go beyond a certain level by the male-dominated leadership of major parties, she said.

The six women MLAs of the LDF are K K Lathika, P Ayisha Potty and K S Saleekha, all from the CPI-M; E S Bijimol, Geetha Gopi from the CPI; Jameela Prakasam of the JD(S).

Geetha Gopi, Jameela Prakasam and Jayalakshmi are first-time MLAs while the other four are into their second stint as legislators.

A total of 78 women candidates including Independents tried their luck at the hustings.

While the LDF fielded 14 women candidates, including 10 from CPI-M, three CPI and one JD (S), the UDF offered seats to 8 and the BJP fielded 14 women.

However, UDF partners like the IUML and the Kerala Congress (M) did not field any woman candidate.

Prominent women who fell by the wayside include 92-year old Gowri Amma of JSS, a component of the UDF, in Cherthala in Alappuzha district.

The grand old lady of Kerala politics and once firebrand Communist, Gowri Amma has been part of most of the Communist ministries from 1957 to 2006. She left the CPI-M in the 1990s and floated JSS.

The Political Role of Nepalese Women

Nepalese women are playing a greater role in politics and economics these days, but their participation in politics is far from the 50 percent that would represent equal and fair representation. More than 95 percent of Nepalese women have been affected by the violence. Since the conflict started, rape and kidnappings have increased. Prostitution has increased. Kidnappings and torture still take place. The forced recruitment of young women into the criminal forces is another serious issue.

During the 1980s, participation of women in Nepal’s political and economic sectors was very low. The United Nations’ declaration of an International Women’s Decade (1975-1985) started discussion and debate on women’s rights. Yet the role played by women in the development of the country remained insignificant. The nation has yet to realize the importance of eradicating discrimination against women. Most women, especially in rural areas, are incapable of fighting for their rights.

Democratic reforms in 1990 provided an opportunity for some women to become active. Women’s organizations arose and offered support to women who wanted to share their problems and experiences, but after a few years they disappeared. Nowadays women’s organizations are satisfied with carrying out small programs for women, but they are not bringing any real change in the status of women in Nepal.

Women Talk: ‘We Want Greater Gender Equality’

“I hope to see a society where women can comfortably work and raise a family … at the same time.” University student Eri Ochiai’s words may well echo the sentiment of many a Japanese woman, hopeful for a change that has eluded them for many years under the previous administration. When Ochiai, 20, trooped to the polls for the first time in late August, she was resolute to give her vote to her district’s female candidate, who had pledged “to improve the social environments for women.” Ochiai’s optimism resonates with many women in Japan. “The Japanese voters have greater expectations of women than before,” said Yoriko Madoka, a member of the House of Councilors (the upper house of Japan’s National Diet) since l992. The women in parliament will bring changes to Japanese politics, added the acknowledged gender advocate within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). DPJ became the new ruling party in the East Asian economic powerhouse following its overwhelming victory in the last national elections. About a third of the women elected for the first time to the lower house — many of them from the DPJ — are in their 20s to 30s while another third are in their 40s. Several young female candidates of the DPJ beat the veteran conservatives from the once formidable party. Inexperienced in politics, their presence in the legislature has prompted some of the LDP stalwarts to voice their scepticism: “What can these young girls do in politics?” they asked. “What is wrong with women and young people making decisions in politics?” Madoka said. Newly elected parliament member Mari Kushibuchi, 41, expressed to ‘Asahi Shimbun’, Japanese daily, soon after the election her readiness to “transform the significance of the votes given to her into new power.” Exposed to the realities of Japanese society, the new and younger female members of parliament are more aware of gender issues and of the need to get rid of discrimination against women, said Madoka. “They are ready to provide different perspectives on agendas involving not only gender but other issues as well such as peace, economy and education,” she added. Such perspectives will be put to good use in a nation still struggling to make women’s voice sufficiently heard on a host of issues. In terms of female presence in politics, Japan ranks 99th in the world, up from its previous standing of 134th, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of Parliaments. This shows that women’s involvement in politics is increasing. The current female composition of the lower house, numbering 54 , or 11.3 percent of the total — up from 9.2 before the last election — is still far below the 30 percent government had set in 2005 as the target ratio of women in important positions by 2020. Yet the number of women parliamentarians who now sit in the House of Representatives is already unprecedented in the history of Japanese politics, thanks in part to women’s groups that campaigned hard to send more women to parliament. One of these is the ‘Women in New World, International Network’, founded in 1999 by Ryoko Akamatsu, former Education Minister and erstwhile chief of the Women and Minors Bureau at the Labor Ministry, along with her friends. WinWin, as the network is simply known, supports progressive female candidates running for public office. The group believes that Japan’s society will change for the better if it has more women in parliament. Madoka’s School of Politics for Women, launched with other parliamentarians in l993, has trained more than 600 women interested in political careers. Of these, five have been sent to the parliament and at least 70 others to the local assembly. Complementing these groups’ efforts are those of other women outside the public sphere who have been pushing for more gender equality in their country. The Working Women’s Network (WWN), a civic organisation of female workers in Osaka, made an urgent appeal to the new government in early September for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Optional Protocol is an international treaty adopted in 1999 establishing complaint and inquiry mechanisms for the CEDAW. Japan ratified the CEDAW in l985, but not the Optional Protocol. Japanese gender specialists agree that there is an urgent need to ratify the other treaty, believing it will effectively eliminate discrimination against women in Japan. More than 80 women’s groups across the nation endorsed the WWN’s proposal urging the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to publicly pledge the ratification of the Optional Protocol during his speech at the United Nations summit on Sept. 23. But he made no mention of it, focusing instead on diplomacy and Japan’s initiative about climate change. Hatoyama’s party, nonetheless, has already made known its intention to amend the antiquated provisions of the Civil Code, which, among others, will allow women to keep their maiden names even after marriage. Such efforts were unheard of under the conservative LDP. Notwithstanding all these efforts in and outside the government, Japan, it appears, still has a long way to go in bringing women’s equality in society into reality. In the Gender Empowerment Measure ranking compiled in the 2007-2008 Human Development Index Report by the United Nations Development Programme, Japan placed 54th among 177 nations, lagging far behind other industrialised nations. Having ratified the CEDAW in 1985, Japan is subject to monitoring by the U.N. Committee monitoring the Convention’s implementation. In August, the Committee evaluated the status of women in Japan, one of 11 countries up for review this year, and found that the country had not shown improvement based on the previous monitoring reports. In its April 2008 report to CEDAW, Japan claimed to have already implemented the equal-pay-for-equal-work rule based on Article 4 of the Labor Standard Law, which prohibits sexually discriminatory wages. Yet it admitted that there was still a wage gap between men and women workers in Japan. The challenge for the progressive women’s force in the parliament is to build a base for untying the gender bind in Japan, said Madoka. Such bind manifests in a number of ways. “More women belong to the ‘working poor’ class” compared to men, she said. “They have also less access to fulltime jobs, less pay and fewer benefits.” A 2008 report published by ‘Japan Times’, an English daily, quoted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as saying that fulltime female workers in 2007 earned on average 66.9 percent of what men earned. The gnawing disparities between genders should be narrowed, said Madoka. “If women’s life is improved, then men’s life should be better, and the whole society will be more human-friendly,” she reasoned. “At the moment working mothers are burdened with unchanging multiple tasks both at work and at home, said Akamatsu. “That is why over 60 percent of working women quit jobs at their first child birth,” she added, referring to the M-curve — or the workforce participation rate of women by age — that reflects a dip considered distinct to Japan. First-time voter Ochiai may not know how long she will have to wait to see her dream for women in her society come true. But she remains optimistic, especially now that there are more female parliamentarians in her country. Sixty two-year-old Yasuko Aoki cannot wait for that day to come. “We expect that the women in parliament would carve a better future for our 13-month-old granddaughter, Hiroko,” the wife of a retired engineer in Tokyo told IPS. She may have known only the traditional life of a homemaker, but she nevertheless shares the hopes and dreams of many other Japanese women. Already she is seeing a modicum of change within the confines of her own family. While Aoki’s daughter is busy tending to Hiroko after a hard day’s work as a bank employee, her son-in-law is dutifully taking the garbage out. An auspicious portent of things to come, she muses.