Condition of widows in Pakistan

Dr Masuma Hasan

Being a widow is not a stigma in Pakistan either in religion or under the law. Marriage in Islam, which is the religion followed by the majority of the population, is not considered as sacrosanct. It is viewed as a civil contract between two individuals which can be dissolved. Thus the extreme sanctity attached to marriage in certain other religions does not operate to turn a widow into an outcast or be held responsible for her husband’s death. Traditionally, widows have been encouraged to re-marry and marriage to a widow has always been considered as an honourable act.

According to the latest Census (1998), in a population of 132.4 million, there were 2.7 million widows in the female population of 69 million. The largest number, 442,179, were found in the age bracket 75 years and above, followed by 416,773 in ages 60 to 64 years, and 326,176 between 50 to 54 years. However, Pakistan’s population in 2010 is estimated at over 170 million so the number of     widows has also increased.

Supportive influences

The law of the land, as embodied in the Constitution of 1973, and all previous constitutions, does not discriminate between the rights of women and men. The Constitution guarantees equal rights to both and rules out discrimination on the basis of sex. It empowers the State to make special laws for the protection of women and children and take steps to ensure the full participation of women in all spheres of national life and protect the marriage, the family, the mother and the child.

A widow inherits one-fourth of her husband’s property if she has no children, and one-eighth of his property if she has children. The Government has made humane provisions for the widows of its employees. After the death of a Government employee, his widow receives the family pension until her own death. Widows of lower paid employees also receive a one-time grant for rehabilitation from the official Benevolent Fund. In the private sector, which works for profit, there are no universal rules governing support for widows of deceased employees, but given the culture of philanthropy, some short-term provision is probably made.

Since 1980, an officially administered zakat system has been operating in Pakistan. Zakat is a tax levied on Muslims at the rate of 2.5 per cent on 11 categories of assets. These funds are used for the benefit of widows, orphans and other needy persons and for those rendered homeless by natural calamities. They are collected by the State and their disbursement has been made the responsibility of the provinces through the provincial zakat committees. These committees operate down to the community level and disburse guzara (sustenance) allowance of which widows are also beneficiaries. Pakistan Baitul Mal (State Treasury), established in 1992, provides financial assistance to widows, orphans, destitute and sick persons, and for welfare projects including education,  health care and self-employment schemes. The Government has issued special saving certificates for widows, pensioners and senior citizens. It has also set up the First Women Bank to encourage women to save and invest and Khushali Bank which operates micro-credit schemes, and many of whose clients are women.

Pakistan has one of the highest levels of private social investment (philanthropy) in the world. It has been estimated that 100-120 billion rupees are donated privately every year for welfare, which amounts to 2 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP. This sum is remarkable because Pakistan is a poor country. The volunteering rate in Pakistan is twice that of the global average. Traditionally, supporting widows and orphans, who are the beneficiaries of philanthropy, has been viewed as acts of piety.

There are great regional and class disparities in the status of women in Pakistan and, therefore, also in the condition of widows. In the last two to three decades, women have made a remarkable appearance on the economic and political scene. One indication of self-reliance among them, including widows, is the growing number of women- headed households. In the urban areas, women headed households have multiplied because of the expanding informal sector in which the majority of women work and contribute.

Urbanisation and the spread of female education have given more space and opportunities to single women, including widows, to survive and find livelihoods. Urbanisation has broken down many barriers. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-10, Pakistan is the most urbanised country in South Asia, with an urban population of 36 per cent. However, based on other development indicators, experts place this figure at well over 40 per cent.

The overall female literacy rate (10 years and above) in the 1998 Census was 32 per cent and is estimated officially at 45 per cent at present. There are large differences in female literacy between the urban and rural areas. In a mega city like Karachi (now estimated at 16 million) there is not much difference between female and male (both above 70 per cent) literacy rates between the ages of 15 and 24. On the other hand, there are immense regional disparities in female literacy and access to education opportunities. However, female enrolment at all levels of education is one of   the fastest   growing development indicators.

Negative factors

In spite of the positive elements in the legal and constitutional parameters described above, widowhood is a condition of extreme distress for women in Pakistan. To use a local metaphor, when a woman becomes a widow, she feels as if the protective chadar from her head has been removed and the status of dependence has been thrust upon her. Most of the problems of survival which widows face are linked to poverty and two-thirds of the poor live in the rural areas. Poor women, who do not possess land and productive assets, live out the rest of their lives on the fringes of existence. Those who do possess assets can be exploited by the strong male culture, especially in the rural areas. They are also the victims of social and cultural prejudice and abuse.

Successive governments have not addressed the problems of widows specifically and no special policy initiatives have been taken to ameliorate their condition. The concern for widows falls within the context of concerns about women in general. Legislation discriminatory to women, introduced in the 1980s, had strengthened the hands of conservative forces and eroded the atmosphere of tolerance. Women’s and citizens’ rights activists, as well as professional organisations, have campaigned forcefully for the repeal of these laws.

The ability of widows to survive independently and seek livelihoods depends on the level of social and economic development in the region where they live, although there are always some trail blazers. Education brings confidence, but perhaps the most important element is the availability of safe and affordable transport to facilitate the widow’s journey out of the protection of her home.

Single women, including widows, take charge of their families and dependents because of male migration, divorce, desertion, and the deaths of husbands caused by war, calamities and natural causes. Those who do not own land and productive assets may not have access to credit facilities or possess the skills to earn their own livelihood. Many community based organisations have long realised that women need very small amounts as loans, not tied to collateral, in order to start survival enterprises. Scores of such organisations throughout Pakistan now provide these small amounts. Poverty still prevents the poorest of the poor from accessing the facilities available in formal institutions like First Women Bank and Khushali Bank.

Women, including widows, do not get fair remuneration as wages either, although women’s rights organisations have lobbied for the reflection of their work in the formal workforce. In the rural areas, they spend long hours in crop and livestock production and in post harvest activities. However, their control over access to land, agricultural inputs, technology and support services such as credit, extension, training and markets is limited. In the urban areas, due to lack of mobility and access to markets, they are paid far less than counterpart male workers.

Although assessments of the scale of philanthropy in Pakistan have taken everyone by surprise, disbursement and use of the large sums generated is random and uncoordinated. Most philanthropy takes the form of private transfers between individuals. With some initiative, utilisation of part of the huge amounts donated annually can be accorded priorities and channelised formally into specific programmes for the uplift of widows.

Natural calamities

No single event threw up the problems of widowhood in Pakistan quite as dramatically as the earthquake of 8 October 2005. The earthquake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and caused catastrophic damage. Official estimates placed the number of dead at 79,000 but unofficial mortality figures were as high as 300,000. Most of the casualties were women and children. Half a million children are said to have been orphaned and thousands disabled. It was estimated by the media that 66,000 women became widows and four million people became shelterless. Some women lost not only their husbands but also their children, land, homes and livelihoods. Perhaps the greatest upheaval caused by natural calamities is the breakdown of established social support systems and relationships. Widows who are absorbed by extended families are generally protected but those living alone face new and unknown challenges. Security becomes the major problem in their lives.

Internally displaced persons and the battle against extremism

Pakistan has been at the centre of the battle against extremism and violence which has lead to death and injury to thousands of its citizens.  Women have become widows because of the violence perpetrated by extremists in suicide attacks and other forms of militancy.  In Swat Valley, Army action against extremists was preceded by the evacuation of the whole population and the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were housed, where possible, in makeshift tent villages. Women, especially widows, and children who could not fend for themselves, suffered the most as it was difficult for them to move around for food, daily necessities and health care. The IDPs of Swat Valley eventually returned to their homes but this pattern of suffering will follow wherever military action is taken against terrorists.

Supportive legal measures

The growing number of women in parliament, including the Speaker of the National Assembly, has been a great morale booster for women in Pakistan. Women occupy about 25 per cent (or more) of the seats in both houses of parliament, either through reservation of seats or direct elections.

Over the last few years, the Government has enacted affirmative legislation to promote gender equality and provide protection to women from which widows also benefit.

  • The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2004 against honour killings, which also target widows, was the result of a long struggle by women activists and women parliamentarians. It equates honour killing with murder and institutes penal punishments but has been criticised by women’s groups because it provides for exemptions, waivers and compounding.
  • Protection of Women (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2006 was promulgated to  amend the Hudood ordinances and thereby provide some relief to women from their arbitrary and unjust provisions. Relief has been given to victims of rape and other offences but many discriminatory aspects have been retained.
  • The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2009 has criminalized sexual harassment and provides protection to women against different forms of harassment including written, verbal and physical harassment, obscene gestures and intrusion of privacy. The law makes all these acts of harassment in public and private spaces punishable by various terms of imprisonment and fines.
  • The Protection Against Harassment at the Work Place Act 2010, provides protection to women from harassment at their places of employment. It includes a wide definition of employees on regular or contractual, daily, weekly, monthly or hourly basis, including interns and apprentices and will protect women in sectors such as brick kilns, agriculture, industry, markets and homes. Also, it gives a broad definition of employers in the public and private sectors and clear definitions of harassment and the workplace. It lists major and minor penalties.

The bill on acid throwing against women, the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2009, was tabled by four women legislators from different political parties. It is waiting to become law.

Livelihood support

A recent major initiative by the Government was launching the Benazir Income Support  Programme which aims at reducing poverty and empowering women by making them financially self-sufficient. In 2009-10, it provided Rupees 70 billion or Rupees 1000/- per month to 5 million families, including widows, to meet basic necessities or  invest in setting up basic businesses. This programmme is now multi-dimensional and provides assistance for health insurance and vocational training. It also targets those affected by natural calamities, internally displaced persons, war- affected families in conflict areas and victims of bomb blasts and suicide attacks.  Widows are beneficiaries of all aspects of this scheme.

International Conference on Widowhood: Widows’ Voices Empowered

Kathmandu, 24-25 June 2010

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  • SUNITA  On January 31, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    protect the widows in india and pakistan and we all people shd help the widows and take care of them and protect them from their cruel and bad inlaws and it is very imp to support the pakistan and indian widows and so lets spread the message everywhere we can to take care and protect the widows rights

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