The Politics of Our Lives: The Raising Her Voice in Pakistan Experience | Pakistan | Violence

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How can we change the power dynamics that exclude women from decision making? How can the barriers that prevent women from exercising their rights as equals to lead, to propose and to call to account be overcome? Over the past five years, the Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme set out to find practical answers to these questions. In the process, more than 700,000 women in 17 countries have benefitted from the results. This report looks at the experiences of the RHV programme in Pakistan, a complex and sensitive context, where women activists face both great opportunities and immense challenges. Working in partnership with the Aurat Foundation (AF), the RHV programme organized 1,500 women activists, living and working in their communities, into
  THE POLITICS OF OUR LIVES The Raising Her Voice in Pakistan Experience RAISING HER VOICE  ‘Pakistan is a difficult place to be female – I have hope, we have hope, we have to have hope. I am hopeful that the challenges I have faced, that my children will not. I am hopeful that the successes I have achieved will inspire my children. I think they are more confident because of my actions.’   Haseen Mussarat, RHV Women’s Leader, Sindh Province  How can we change the power dynamics that exclude women from decision making? How can the barriers that prevent women from exercising their rights as equals to lead, to propose and to call to account be overcome? ‘No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you.’ Mohammed Ali Jinnah, speaking to the Muslim University Union Aligarh, 10th March 1944In partnership with 17 Oxfam country teams, 45 partner organizations and 450 coalition members, the Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme set out to find practical answers to these questions. The RHV programme recognized the complexity of the obstacles women face in their personal, social and political spheres, and that lasting change would only be secured through strengthening women’s positions across all three areas. The programme developed a Theory of Change based on this model to guide programme design, reflection and learning. More than 700,000 women in 17 countries have benefited from the results. Well known for its highly articulate and influential women, Pakistan is also known throughout the world for the severe restrictions placed on women’s personal and political liberties – so-called ‘honour killings’ being the most extreme example. Pakistan is a country where, in 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first-ever woman prime minister of a Muslim country; where, in 2008, Dr. Fehmida Mirza became the first woman to be elected as speaker of a National Assembly in the Muslim world; and where 2013 saw more than 100 women members enter both houses of parliament. Yet, Pakistan is also a country where Zubaida Begum was killed because of her attempt to break anti-women traditions by participating in local elections and raising women’s awareness of their right to vote; and where, during the May 2013 elections, in violation of election rules and the agreed code of ethics, many women were barred from voting, 1  predominantly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 2 The RHV programme entered this very complex and sensitive space by building on a country level partnership with the Aurat Foundation (AF), which for the past 26 years has come to be known for its commitment to promoting women’s empowerment and citizens’ participation in governance. Working together, the RHV programme and AF established the ‘50 Women Leaders Groups’ (WLGs) in 30 districts across Pakistan, with a total membership of 1,500 women activists, living and working in their communities. The aims of the WLGs are: to promote activism within their communities; to defend and promote individual and collective women’s rights; to represent marginalized women; and to raise women’s collective voice at local and district levels, as well as, with AF’s support, at the provincial and national level. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY  The decision to work with well-connected ‘home-grown’ women leaders strengthened community activism and, crucially, provided an entry point to reach the many women who remained marginalized. Their activism and campaigning has resulted in tangible benefits for women and contributed to changing a culture that all too often excludes women from decision making. Thanks to the courage and determination of these women leaders, hundreds of women – who would otherwise never have gained access to resources, informal and formal justice, or decision-making fora – are beginning to have a say in the choices that affect their lives. From Sialkot, where WLG members helped nearly 116,000 women gain national identity cards, to Attock, where the WLG helped convince the local panchayat authority 3  to ban honour killings, the creation of the WLGs has increased women’s personal and organizational capacity and confidence to influence and call those in power to account. The increase in women’s political participation has provided new opportunities to form alliances and gain influence within centres of power, enabling women to help shape policy and practice. Safety in numbers and the novelty of an activist platform that, possibly for the first time, is not drawn on family, religious or political lines has helped to develop mutual trust and strengthen the collective voice of local women. Despite their ideological or party political differences, the women leaders think alike on many women’s rights issues. They are able to work together to resolve local problems, such as violations of women’s employment rights and cases of domestic violence.National and local spaces for community activism were supported by AF’s tireless advocacy and lobbying, which drew on its strong media and communications background. Thanks to its links to women’s groups nationwide, AF’s evidence-led advocacy is acknowledged as having been a driving force behind legislative changes (notably the introduction of the Domestic Violence Bill in Sindh Province) and pro-women reforms to the rules of political engagement. Cultural events and public rallies have also ensured that women’s rights remain a highly visible issue. As the RHV programme draws to a close, the experiences and achievements of the WLG model, with its strong national partnership and focus of community-level activism, contain valuable insights for anybody working to promote women’s political participation and leadership in volatile and complex environments. 4 THE POLITICS OF OUR LIVES THE RAISING HER VOICE IN PAKISTAN EXPERIENCE AFTER MONTHS SLEEPING ‘UNDER THE SKY’ FOLLOWING A DISPUTE WITH HER LANDLORD, NEETAN KOHLI [FAR-LEFT], WLG MEMBER IN HATRI, HYDERABAD, HAS RETURNED TO HER HOME AND TO WORK IN THE FIELDS, WITH THE SUPPORT OF THE WLGS (2012). PHOTO: IRINA WERNING
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