Tagged with " children"
Jan 22, 2013 - published work, women    5 Comments

Making informed decisions

The current session of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Assembly has been in session for almost a month; one would think that a lot must have gotten done in the assembly in terms of legislation and discussing matters that affect a large number of people residing in the province. And while a lot did get done, many matters that affected the women of the province were either brushed aside or were not addressed properly.

One case in point is the Elimination of Custom of Ghag Bill 2012. The Elimination of Custom of Ghag Bill 2012 was presented on the directives of the Peshawar High Court to promulgate a law. Under the custom of ghag, any man can publicly declare a woman to be his and that makes her unmarriageable for other men, restricting her right to choose a life partner. The new law makes the act a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence.

According to the law, the violators can be punished or imprisoned for up to seven years. Though the original text of the legislation called for punishment of seven to 14 years, the punishment was reduced to the maximum of seven years. This is a clear and present problem in the province and constitutional petitions have been filed to stop the practice and criminalise the offence.

The assembly also reneged on another piece of legislation affecting girls. Ministers, who publicly lent support to the cause of elimination of child marriage, opposed the Child Marriage Restraint Amendment Bill when it was introduced. Though it was moved by a member from the treasury benches, MPA Munawar Sulatana, it faced resistance not only from the opposition members but also from the treasury benches.

The bill aimed to increase the legal age of marriage for a girl from 16 to 18 and the punishment in the Child Marriage Restraint Act. Unfortunately, the bill was opposed, citing the reasons as flimsy, since ‘the approval of this bill will create a new debate and more issues in the province’ to the factually incorrect ones such as ‘there is no age limit for marriages in other Islamic countries’ to the evergreen excuse of rejecting anything progressive by calling it a “western agenda”.

There are certain activities that only adults are privileged to participate in. In most countries, the age for obtaining a driving license is 18 — a time when a person is supposed to have finished high school and attains adulthood. Similarly, the right to choose an elected representative is also reserved for people over the age of 18 because anyone under that age is considered to be too young to fully comprehend the responsibility that comes with voting. If people are supposed to wait till they turn 18 for something as simple as driving and voting, then how come they are allowed to get married at younger ages when they are unable to make informed decisions either about choosing their life partner, starting or raising a family or financially supporting it? The medical complications that underage girls face after early marriages and pregnancies are an altogether different spectrum of the story.

It is about time our lawmakers stopped making the same old excuses of the imposition of  ‘western agenda’ and started making laws that affect the well-being of a very large group of young persons who will soon be their voters. This will not only help in increasing female literacy and improving family planning efforts, but there will be long lasting health and well-being benefits for that section of the population.

First published in The Express Tribune.

May 26, 2012 - population, published work    2 Comments

Where are the health stories in the newspapers?

A country where 58% of the population is food insecure and over 43% children are malnourished, health is an outstanding concern all the time. Add the repeated misery of floods of 2010 and 2011 and displacement of population in hundreds of thousands because of military operations in KPK and FATA and it becomes an ever more pressing concern. When a matter is that critical, you expect to see highlighted everywhere. Unfortunately, the Pakistani media is, by and large, silent on this issue.
Let’s start with the health issues of children. Not only neonatal mortality is responsible for 57% of all deaths in children younger than 5 years in the country, the country also has the dubious distinction of having the highest neonatal mortality rate in the region. Nearly two million children less than five years of age die of pneumonia. Similar number dies of diarrhea every year. According to UN figures, around 432,000 children die before reaching the age of five in Pakistan and the majority of these lives are taken by pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, malaria, tuberculosis and tetanus. But if you go through any newspaper in Pakistan or watch any news bulletin on any of the TV channels, you would think that the only disease killing children in Pakistan is Polio.
Pick any newspaper, almost 90 per cent of the news items about children’s health cover stories about polio vaccination drive of the government, its success, failures and the political mileage politicians get out of it. Half of such stories would be based on statements by political personalities such as Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, Farzana Raja and Shehnaz Wazir Ali during various campaign launches. Ironically we are not even doing that very well and Pakistan is one of the three countries — the other two being Nigeria and Afghanistan — in the world which still has the disease. Pakistan has not done much to meet the millennium development goal of reducing childhood mortality by 2015 and control of infectious disease which should have been the topmost priority remains neglected.
Health experts have noted that the higher occurrence of communicable diseases among children and acute malnutrition in the country is primarily due to poverty, higher illiteracy rate among mothers and the government’s lack of commitment towards ensuring food security to each and every citizen. They also attributed it to the inherent problems in infant feeding practices and access to “right” foods, a problem that can be addressed if media makes it a priority and educated masses about it. Unfortunately media is busy pursuing its own agenda and is content with airing stories of nurses fighting it out with traders in the streets of Lahore during protests for increase in their wages. 
As far as health issues of adults are concerned, one sees stories only about cases of criminal negligence, medical malpractice, lack of infrastructure, absentee doctors and protests and strikes by medical and paramedical staff. There is hardly any coverage given to issues relating to nutrition, health policy, legislation and drug pricing policies, etc.
With the devolution of the ministry of health following the Eighteenth Amendment, Pakistan faces the challenge of developing a reliable provincial infrastructure that would integrate the efforts of various stakeholders in promoting better health outcomes. Unfortunately, we are not even at the stage where a workable policy is developed and budgetary priorities are reassessed, so developing a workable provincial infrastructure remains a distant dream.

Written originally for The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version. 

May 11, 2012 - published work, religion, Society    3 Comments

The fatwa factory

There is so much that needs to be done in Pakistan that one does not know where to start. The country is suffering the worst energy crisis of its history; it is food insecure like never before and almost half the children in the country are malnourished and stunted. In short, we are teeming millions who cannot feed themselves, have limited access to energy and will be dumber and weaker in future because of stunted mental and physical growth of our children. At such a juncture of history, what is it that we do most? We issue fatwas promoting misogyny and obscurantism; against hygiene, education, health and progress.
The latest in the line of outrageous fatwas is issued by a former legislator. Maulana Abdul Haleem, of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rehman, came up with a series of misogynist fatwas, clearly detailing what should be the priorities of his political and religious followers. For starters, the fatwa declares formal education for women to be unIslamic. As just declaring the act of going to school and getting some education irreligious was not enough, he also had to reprimand the parents who send their girls to schools in Kohistan and asked them to terminate their education. He told them, in no uncertain terms, that failure to do so will earn them a spot in eternal hellfire.
The fatwa does not end here. It goes on to declare all the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the region as ‘hubs of immodesty’. He first blames the women working in those NGOs for mobilizing local women on health and hygiene issues and then calls on the local men to marry the unmarried NGO workers – forcefully if they have to – to make them stay at home. Maulana Haleem’s religious credentials are dubious at best as this is the guy who thinks growing poppy for heroine production is shariah compliant. 
In short, a former legislator issues random fatwas during a Friday sermon inciting hatred against a group of people (NGO workers) and declaring the constitutional rights of getting education for half the population haram and no one barring a few bloggers and tweeters raised an eye brow. A non issue like memogate which does not affect the life of any Pakistani other than our former ambassador to USA, gets yards of column space and thousands of minutes of airtime. A religious decree that can affect life and livelihood and future of many Pakistani is not worth pondering or protesting.
Had it been just one fatwa from one cleric in one remote corner, we would have had the luxury to ignore it. Unfortunately we churn out one religious edict after another for most ludicrous of purposes. If declaring vegetarian items like potato chips and hair implant services halal is considered viable marketing gimmick, then abduction of minor girls from minority communities also get a sanction in a fatwa (and a court judgment). Fatwas are so commonplace than even KESC had to resort to seek a fatwa a few years back to get people pay for the electricity. As KESC is still laden with hundreds and thousands of unpaid bills, we all know how effective that fatwa turned out to be. 
A country like ours can ill afford adventurism of any kind, but most dangerous is the practice of resorting to fatwa to get a point across. Not only it breeds a narrow and rigid view of the things, it does not leave any room for dialogue, debate and consultation, making us an even more intolerant bunch. 

Written for Express Tribune, this is the unedited version.
Apr 6, 2012 - published work    1 Comment

Career choices Karachi has for little Owais

It was Mark Twain who said “clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” While no one can deny the importance of sartorial choices in making us who we are, it is our environment – literal, social, cultural, and psychosocial – that decides who we are and what we are going to be. 
Owais is seven years old and lives in Karachi – Orangi Town to be precise. His father works as a junior care taker in a shrine and his mother is a maid. When I first met him, he looked like a happy go lucky, fairly smart kid who likes cricket and bananas in no particular order loves going to school because he gets to hang out with his friends and considers his mother to be the best person in the world. Sounds like a regular kid? Yes, he does. It is only when I started to talk to him about his career choices that one realizes what living in a society like ours has done to him and hundreds of thousands of other children.
Owais wants to join the army which looked like a decent career option. A lot of kids would want to do that but when he was asked why he would like to join the army, he said that he will have a big gun with which he will be able to intimidate everyone. He also relishes the fact that an army person is at the top of the food chain and can even beat a police man.
His second career option is to go into the police. Just like the armed forces, police officials are also powerful people who can beat up everyone whenever it takes their fancy. Owais’ father was once beaten up by them for no reason. Owais thinks that if he joins the police force, no one will be able to harm his family except for the army officials, only they are more powerful than the policemen.
Owais’s third and least desired career option is to become a maulvi. When asked why, he said that a maulvi is well respected in the community, gets sent good food from every house in the neighborhood and most of all, he gets to beat up all the children he teaches Quran.
Owais has lived with frequent and continual exposure to the use of guns, knives, drugs, and random violence in his neighborhood. He has witnessed shootings and beatings many a times in his short life and thinks only those professions that can offer a modicum of security are worth pursuing.
Living in a society where it is an everyday occurrence, Owais thinks violence is a natural state of being. For him beating up random people including children is a fine way to live and make a living. At this point in time, he does not even have access to a television at home, nor does he hang out with adults who indulge in violence, imagine how he, or any other child like him who thinks violence is cool, will behave when he gets to watch all the violent material available on television and make life choices after that?
The responsibility of providing our children with a safe and secure environment falls on all of us, parents, teachers, clergymen, relatives, government executive, political leaders and actors. Its about time we learn to get over our petty squabbles for short term personal and political gains and start thinking about our children?
Originally written for The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version. 
Mar 31, 2012 - published work    3 Comments

The lost generation

Though Bara is a town in Khyber Agency, it is quite close to Peshawar and those who can afford to send their children to schools and colleges in Peshawar tend to prefer that. Quite a lot of them used to commute daily between their homes in Bara and schools & colleges in Peshawar. 
Not anymore.
Bara is under siege; army and paramilitary forces have launched an operation against the infamous Mangal Bagh and his banned Lashkar-e-Islam in the area. All roads are blocked and no means of transportation are available. Those who are stuck in the area find it very hard to get out. Among those trapped in the town amidst army offensive are children who were appearing for their high school board examination this year.
Earlier this month a few students managed to come to Peshawar for their matriculation exams, braving both the curfew and bullets being sprayed from all sides. The students from Bara started their papers an hour later than their local peers. It was a miracle that they managed to make it to the examination hall at all, but when they requested their invigilators for extra time to make up for their late arrival because of curfew and cross firing they were denied. Luckily a reporter was present and pleaded their case and they were given some extra time.
This incident reveals two hard hitting realities of our society. First is that we do not listen to our children. They were the ones who first suffered the trauma of living under the influence of a terrorist like Mangal Bagh, then an army operation in their area and the death of their loved ones as a result of the cross fire  between the armed forces and the militants. They experienced the tragedy first hand but the teacher did not pay any heed to their pleas. It took an adult, in this case the journalist who intervened on behalf of those children, to get through to the teacher to make him understand their plight.
Second is that the teacher who should’ve been more considerate and sympathetic towards those children has perhaps lost his compassion because he gets to hear such stories or even more terrible ones every day which has toughened his outlook.  
Horrific as it may sound these children were not the worst sufferers of the conflict, there are thousands who are living as IDPs in various parts of the province and their access to education is limited at best in camps for IDPs.
It is not just the children living in areas under the army operation or in the IDP camps that suffer. Even the host communities in the areas where the IDP camps are set up suffer because a lot of times these camps are set up in public schools or near public schools and their teachers are engaged in the camp work. In the areas which were previously under militants or army operation, the schools are open but many are damaged and some are without teachers who have permanently fled the area.
The worst victims of the armed conflict are the children and the most damaging impact is on education infrastructure. The roads and bridges can be rebuilt but the time and opportunities for the children in conflict zones are lost forever. It has not only hindered the economic growth of the area for now, it reinforces future poverty of such children and holds back their progress as individuals, as a community and inevitably as a country.

First published in Express Tribune, this is the unedited version

Hungry and about to explode

How many of us have seen children with thinning, rough hair with orange hue? They are the children who are trying to clean our car’s windshield at every other signal. It is the boy who is working at the tyre shop in our local gas station. It could be our maid’s child playing in our garage and eating dirt while she is attending to us and our children. These pale, skinny, listless children are all around us – everywhere –they are the malnourished children of our world. 
Pakistan is among thefive top ranked countries that have more than half of the world’s malnourished children, says a report publishedby ‘Save the Children’. One in four of the world’s children are stunted. In a country like Pakistan, the figure is much higher. Stunted growth means their body and brain has failed to develop properly because of malnutrition. About 43.6 per cent children in the country are officially reported stunted and if no concerted action is taken, Pakistan will have the highest percentage of stunted children population in the next 15 years. Apart from coming up with national level plans to deal with this acute shortage and price hike of necessary food items, the most obvious way of dealing with this issue is to have less number of children, yet we keep procreating at an alarming rate with absolutely no planning, hoping that God will provide for them – a fatalistic approach that has harmed the country to no end. 
The world malnutrition and hunger has put the philosophical approach that every child brings its own food to rest; however, it is still considered a valid excuse for having large families. What parents do not realize is that their malnourished children are not only disadvantaged as children, they will remain so as adults and will earn at least 20% less on average than those who have had a healthy childhood.
The country’s population is estimated to go up to 300 million by 2030, and our water resources – necessary for food growth, agricultural, dairy and poultry farming, hygiene and sanitation – are dwindling fast. Pakistan has slid from being a water affluent country to a water scarce country; imagine how bad the situation would be with 120 million additional mouths to feed and even less food & water than we have right now.
22 per cent of the people in Pakistan can never afford to buy staple foods such as meat, milk, or vegetables for their families every week, yet they keep on adding to their families. The policy makers and decision makers have to take notice now and take measures to realistically deal with this issue. Poverty reduction measures like Benazir Income Support Programe alone, can never tackle the population time bomb, it has to be paired with stringent population control actions.
In a country where advocating family planning is still a taboo, we need to address this issue as an emergency. There are sections in the society that take pride in the fact that we will become the most populous Muslim nation soon. What is the point in taking pride in producing world’s biggest group of hungry, malnourished children and adults with limited abilities to fend for themselves and lacking prospects for future growth.
We need to create a society where small families are socially desirable and it can be created through deliberate social engineering by the state and clergy. It has already happened in Iran and Bangladesh, and it can happen in Pakistan as well. 
First published in The Express Tribune
PS: Those who accuse me of being anti PTI should know that this piece was neutral, discussed a clear and present danger and never once mentioned ‘he who cannot be named’ yet one of the most dismissive comment I received on the newspaper website was by a PTI troll who prefers to hide behind the alias of Frank Observer. This is what he wrote: 
I’m sick of the liberals, wealthy and the privileged of this country lecturing the underprivileged on how to lead their life. Just because you had the privilege of western education does not mean that you can treat the ordinary working class of this country as ignorant and brainless individuals who need to be told by the upper class like yourself how many children they should have. I believe one should have as many children as one likes, and it should have no bearing on inequality, poverty and injustice in society. I for one don’t need your expert advise in my personal life. So thanks but no thanks. Also, you are distorting attention from the real root causes of inequality and poverty, which are embedded corruption in society, dishonest, selfish, and incompetent politicians and people like yourself who instead of lecturing the politicians are turning this country into a nanny state by dictating our personal lifes to the extent that we should now listen to you for family planning. Guys, bring down the statusquo in the next general election and vote for Imran Khan.

I rest my case