Thursday, June 08, 2006

Post Op/Ed (June 5, 2006)/Gifting our health away

This week’s revelations that the Federal Minister for Population Welfare Chaudhry Shahbaz Hussain has consumed 100 percent of the “secret fund at his disposal and money meant for gifts and entertainment” and that “amounts meant for purchase of gifts and entertainment has been spent hundred percent even by the four provincial departments of Population Welfare and their attached departments with even the local outlets spreading all over Pakistan not even leaving a single penny unspent (of the amount given to them) to buy gifts”, amazed even those who had grown immune to the actions of our parliamentarians. That many departments had also expressed their intention that they would spend the so far unspent money on gifts and entertainment within the period of May to June 2006 instead of surrendering it to the Finance Ministry did perplex some of us. Had not Pakistani women been reminded in so many forums that it were they and their spending foolishly that had led many a household and the country’s economy to ruin? The media every day bombards us with images of ‘penny wise pound foolish’ Pakistani housewives who are blamed as the chief perpetrators of consumerism in Pakistani society.Didn’t most of the 19th century Muslim reform movements in South Asia focus on rescuing Muslim women from wasteful habits stemming from ‘ignorance and superstition’? The reformers were of the view that the solution to the Muslim community’s decline (amongst a range of other moves) lay in reforming and guiding women. This was because women were viewed — paradoxically — as both the principal executors of wasteful and ‘impossible’ customs and as the chief victims of such customs (Barbara D Metcalf: Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, Princeton University Press, 1982). Reformers like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi in Beheshti Zevar (The Heavenly Ornaments — which to date remains an essential bedside reading for most of our ulema, trying to jot down thinking points for their next lecture, and which, until the Moltyfoam advertisement came along, was the best gift to give to the daughter leaving for her husband’s house) do elaborate with great detail on wicked women who demand more and more money from husbands with “not even thinking for a minute of the difficulties he may face in far away places and the comforts he has to give up”. My copy of The Heavenly Ornaments (translated into English by Dar-ul-Ishaat, Karachi) has a whole section devoted to ungrateful wives who amongst other nasty habits will never use the “plenty of money the husband sends to run the house in a beautiful manner, saving the extra money and handing it over to the husband the moment he returns home”! Oh well, maybe the good Maulana had yet to meet the compulsive shoppers in the Government of Pakistan’s Hall of Fame!But I believe the Federal Minister for Population has something to say in his defence. His ministry has very kindly returned an amount of Rs. 1 billion to the Finance Ministry, which had been given to the ministry to fund Pakistani women’s empowerment and their reproductive health concerns. The programme source for funds returned remains the same for all associated institutions and organizations. Across the board, it is the amounts allocated to fund projects for women’s reproductive health that the affiliate organizations claim to have not utilized! This with the appalling figures for infant mortality, maternal deaths, and women’s access to health providers in Pakistan, which still call for our policy makers’ attention. Was the good Minister trying to hint that his job had been accomplished? That the next big disaster, as our spiraling population growth continues to tax our dwindling natural resources and an infrastructure that just doesn’t manage to cope with these alarming figures, been averted?It is heartening that Ms. Gul-e-Farkhanda, a member of the National Assembly and who currently chairs the National Assembly body on population welfare has taken the Minister to task. She has listed the following concerns that still need to be addressed. They include: “Comprehensive family planning services to males and females; maternal health care including safe motherhood, pre- and post-abortion care in complication; infant healthcare; management of reproductive health; problems in adolescents; management of reproductive health related problems of women and men; prevention and management of reproductive tract infection; sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS; detection of breast and cervical cancer; management of reproductive health related issues of men; management of infancy; gender equality and empowerment of women; programme management; and human resource development.”That this news coincides with the US’s announcements that it has agreed to sell Pakistan $ 375 million worth of military equipment (as reward for good behaviour for being a valuable ally in the war of terror) is worrying. So, while Pakistani women continue to die in childbirth and to date have the highest rate of breast cancer for any Asian population, our government has chosen to spend their savings on 50 Harpoon missiles to be launched from submarines and surface ships! My government’s spending priorities continue to amaze me.While Minister Shahbaz quickly retraces his steps and decides to spend Rs. 540 million in the next two months on bringing some “revolution in the field of population welfare”, his critics express their fears about the quality of the work commissioned in such a short period. In the midst of these revelations, we have also found out that the government officials and the ministry concerned continues to ignore the health concerns of women living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as they fear upsetting the ‘Islamic’ sensitivities of the region. This brings me back to the concerns I had raised last week; our political and military officials are ready to barter the lives of women living in the region, their access to basic rights, education, health providers and expression of opinion, in order to get a ‘negotiated’ peace on the government’s terms in the area.Minister Shahbaz has announced that the ministry has hired female scholars to spread the good word, but what Pakistan should be looking towards (and a source in the population ministry tells me that this movement has already started in some circles), are male motivators. Most Pakistani women are already aware of the risks our current attitudes towards reproductive health pose to our nation. It is only by driving the message home to our male population that we can see some changes. We have tried media campaigns, including the clergy, but to what end? The media campaign of chota khandaan zindagi asaan (small families, trouble-free lives) set in action a spate of bumper stickers of barra khandaan, jihad asaan (large families, trouble-free war). Unless and until the nation’s men are reminded of their responsibilities, and the government agrees to a comprehensive maternal health programme as suggested post-Cairo to be instituted in the country, I don’t think we can have any “revolution in the field of population welfare”.And in the meantime, could someone take the good minister’s and his cronies’ credit cards away?

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