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Category Archives: Human Rights

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful commited citizens can change the world – indeed it is the only thing that ever does” -Margaret Meade

She was 13 and he was 39 – Rape & Consent

Men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price. PHOTO: FILE

The 15-year-old girl from Lahore gave her “consent” and he was her “boyfriend”, and so it is not rape, they say.

This case is garnering a very expected response. But why are we surprised? It reminds me of a case I came across a while back. A 13-year-old girl fell for her 39-year-old neighbour. They started chatting via the internet. One day, when she was home alone, he coerced her into having a sexual encounter. Reality was not as the girl had imagined. When it actually happened, she yelled, cried and resisted but was raped. But the men in her own family, her own relatives, were of the opinion that this incident should be brushed under the rug and no complain should be lodged with the police.

“Larki buhut taiz hai. Ghalti humari hi larki ki hai. Chakkar chalaya hua tha us aadmi se. Yeh to hona hee tha.”

(The girl is very fast. The fault lies with our girl. She had an affair with that man. This was bound to happen).

This is not to say that it is just men who further these stereotypes.

It would also be unfair to assume that only females are raped. Painful incidents where young boys are raped or sexually abused mercilessly keep surfacing on the media. But the numbers, compared to females, are jarringly lower. Hence, here we will discuss the predicament women are faced with.

Staring in our faces is the reality that unless a woman, of any age, has pushed away, kicked or tried to hit the man forcing himself upon her, and has signs of that physical scuffle in the form of torn clothes and bruises, she will not be considered a victim of ‘rape’. And even that will be accepted only if the man was a stranger practically. If at all she had an inclination towards the man and/or had any one-on-one communication with him at any point in the past, she will be considered one of loose character and having brought the ‘inevitable’ upon herself.

This definition of rape is so inbuilt in our society’s system that the idea of rape beyond this is considered… well… not rape. So much so that other categories of rape, in which some form of consent is present at some stage, may be involved from the woman’s side, are ruled off the list of kinds of rape in an absolutist fashion.

The girl gang raped in Lahore was a minor. Even if, hypothetically, she knew or liked the man, she is a child, not an adult. It is recognised as statutory rape even under Pakistani law which is generally not the most women-friendly. But a Pakistani publication went as far as using insensitive language like “…to meet her boyfriend…” and “the tests proved that the couple had been engaged in a consenting relationship”.

If this is the mentality being echoed by an English language publication, what thought process do we expect the average uneducated or less evolved Pakistani to exhibit? If the minor is not old enough to have a driver’s license or an identity card, is he or she old enough to discern and decide the consequences of indulging in a sexual relationship?

The 13-year-old girl I mentioned earlier was a normal, curious child who knew little what this encounter with her almost 40-year-old neighbour would lead to. But that man knew exactly what he was doing. How is this, then, not rape?

Another example is how every time we use the term “marital rape”, many, if not all, will express shock over the idea – shock that is genuine, as it is considered unthinkable that anything within the bond of marriage could be wrong. Others know what it means but say all is fair in nikkah and vows.

But perhaps the most insidious form of sexual exploitation is when a woman is exploited via emotional manipulation. Leading someone on with the pretence of commitment and promises of a marriage has led many girls and women in our society to points of no return. And this happens across the board – it is not restricted to urban or rural, affluent or underprivileged. After giving their all, women are left in the lurch.

Again, men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price.

Thus in many cases, the seeming “consent” actually has layers of details in the background that one does not know. Talking about this is important so that as a society, we learn to understand the difference.

Kasur child pornography: Knowing the difference between resistance and consent

Published: August 10, 2015

One official has called it “the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history.” PHOTO: REUTERS

I don’t curse. But this is a rare occasion where I would love to abuse the perpetrators of the Kasur children’s sexual abuse atrocity in the vilest possible terms. However, here’s the thing about cursing – If I curse, I would end up using words that revile their mothers, sisters, and use the same pile of filth in words that they actually went and committed by use of force, intoxication and blackmailing.

So I would only be furthering the same thought process, where sex is connected with a position of power.  People who curse using sexual terminology are played into feeling a sense of control, and it allows one to vent unrestrictedly. In a twisted and mutated way, so does rape or molesting a child. So no, cursing will not help. We have to come up with something better. Understanding how child sexual abuse is happening in a society where the Youtube blocks have clearly not mitigated paedophilia, leave alone pornography, some things needs to be understood.

This particular incident is so painful and sensitive that we have re-evaluated each word we are using. Scandal, for example, is a wrong word to use here, because it can be used for rumour or gossip. This incident is no rumour it happens to be a real wound that will remain etched in the Pakistani nation’s collective memory. One must also not compare the criminals with animals, because such brutality is rare among animals.

All I can do is pray earnestly that may they be punished without an iota of compassion shown to them, may they be made a bad example of, and may they burn in the lowest depths of hell.

Yet, just condemning them to hell is not enough. Some 500 abused children, 15 accused (the youngest of them is allegedly just 14-years-old), seven FIRs, and a judicial probe order later, have we learnt anything about the monstrosity that child sexual abuse is? This had been going on for years! Black mailing, cover ups, a silent town. The details will keep emerging as the story unfolds, and we may never know what the exact truth is.

These children were in big numbers, and numbers jolt us awake, albeit temporarily. But what about what happens around us?

Have we seen the number of street children in Karachi alone, and do we realise that each one of them is sexually molested within days of being initiated onto the open roads?

Which one of us has not come across stories of children being molested sexually?

The accused, for whom we all are praying for eternal damnation, are from among us. Sexual abuse at a tender age rewires the brain in mysterious ways. Every child who has undergone this trauma suffers from neurobiological, as well as long-term psychological effects. Each case will be different, as will how the child, even when a grown adult, processes it.

But the scar will remain. For some, the long-term impacts may be milder but debilitating– like deep-rooted psychiatric disorders, depression, anxiety, failed relationships, inherently low self-esteem, use of sex as a means of feeling better about themselves, and irresponsible decisions when it comes to sexual activity. For others, it might be an aversion to sex and prudish behaviour for a long time. In a worst case scenario, he/she who was once the victim, is now the perpetrator.

Pakistan, fortunately, still has a social system where very few will agree with post-modernist and other theories, where childhood is not considered the age of innocence. An example is what was said in the California Childhood Sensuality Circle, by its main figure Valida Davila, in 1981:

“We believe children should begin sex at birth”.

A legal minor, or a child, is a child, not yet in a position where he or she can make an informed decision about entering into such activity. While the law of Pakistan agrees with this, and whether the child resisted or not, considers it statutory rape when a minor is sexually molested, not everyone in society agrees.

I came across a recent case, and this is factual, where a 12-year-old girl was raped by a man in his 40s. The two had been interacting and chatting as they lived in the same neighbourhood. Even after the rape was proven and the man confessed, people of the neighbourhood and the girl’s own relatives were heard saying

“It was not really rape as she is a very tez (conniving) girl and was having an affair with him; she never resisted”.

The child was a curious 12-year-old with raging hormones, not a consenting adult.

The difference must be understood in the backdrop of the Kasur incident, because now that the entire community knows which children were sexually abused and filmed, those films will be run and rerun to see where there were signs of resistance, and where the child seemed to consent. Sadly, but surely, the incident will haunt those 500 young lives and their families in a judgmental society.

Child sexual abuse perpetrators, as psychologists confirm, often befriend the child and develop a comfort level where they do not have to use physical force. Yet, because it is a child in question, it is an unfair equation and abuse of the highest order.

But what is perhaps most worrisome, that there is a market out there, and an avid watcher of these films, who may not be an active paedophile himself, but enjoys the sickening, cheap thrills of watching a helpless child being forced into the act.

This is an unsafe, bad, bad world. In your community, watch out for any suspicious activity, and report it, whether it is your child or someone else’s. Protect your child at all costs, especially when at a formative, unripe age where the child cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Do not trust anyone with your child. And if you happen to know someone who was a victim, stop judging that person. Most importantly, seek help, both psychological and legal.

May the Kasur incident be the last of its kind. And may we have learnt some lessons to protect our children.

Dreams from Balochistan: A garbage picker from Quetta makes a movie, tells his tale

Published: June 28, 2015
http://tribune.com.pk/story/910980/dreams-from-balochistan-a-garbage-picker-from-quetta-makes-a-movie-tells-his-tale/
Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers. PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers. PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

KARACHI: A part of his face may still be scarred but this strapping young 18-year-old man from Quetta has eyes full of dreams, and some of these dreams have begun to come true.

Life changed for Ashraf Khan since people from Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP)-Pakistan stumbled upon him. The teenager has learnt lessons beyond his years. By the age of 15, he had already experienced poverty, an acid injury, garbage picking as a profession, and drug addiction as an escape.

Read: Balochistan unrest: FC nails six alleged insurgents in separate raids

“It was Ramazan and I was seven years old,” recalled Ashraf. “We put slabs of wood on the wall as makeshift cupboards and one of them carried a bottle of acid. I was sleeping on the floor. It was dark. My mother came to pick something and dropped the acid on me by mistake.”

His handsome features, once ravaged by acid burns, have now begun to emerge again, thanks to the treatment for which IDSP and Indus Hospital have helped him. Ashraf became a garbage picker around the same time he had the accident. With nine siblings and a father too old and sick to work, child labour was inevitable, that too the worst kind as a scavenger of waste.

“I would earn Rs200 to Rs300 a day, and would spend it mostly on my treatment,” he said. “I used to get two injections a day. My face used to bleed and I would smell of and ooze pus. People could not sit with me and have food.”

Finding a guiding hand from IDSP, he was brought to Karachi some two and a half years ago when he was operated on at Indus Hospital. “I cannot express how happy I was. My Ammi could not believe it when my brother sent her my picture. I had a face once again.” Ashraf has never been to school and talks in Urdu with difficulty, but has already produced a documentary film on the plight of garbage pickers and it has been well-received.

Read: Balochistan govt announces general amnesty for militants who lay down their arms

Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers.

PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

Ashraf is one of the 30 students who exhibited their short films and documentaries at the Pak-American Cultural Center under the IDSP Film Festival, 2015. Sensitive subjects, such as target killing, violence, human rights, living in conflict zones, sectarian violence and social marginalisation were tackled deftly in these films. “All the funding to make these films was provided by IDSP,” said Asma Zafar, IDSP’s institutional support manager, who is a mentor to many young people from Balochistan.

Read: In session: Balochistan Assembly debates power shortage

Ashraf admitted the idea to make a film came to his heart. “I want more and more people to see it so that people understand what garbage pickers go through,” he said about his production and directorial debut in which he dabbled with a little bit of acting too.

Today, Ashraf has started reading and writing, and he guides other young garbage pickers in Karachi. “Only a garbage picker can understand the problem of another one,” he said, sharing his dream of setting up a centre for garbage pickers. “When young people do not get mentors and guidance, they can get lost. If I had not gotten guidance, I would be just another druggy lost on the streets and life would have left me behind.”

Pursuing his passion: Two goats for a film

Another budding filmmaker, Ali Ahmed, 23, is ready to pay any price to pursue his passion for film making. “I had to sell two of my goats to make the film and come to Karachi for the screening,” he said. “My family thinks all films are vulgar like the Bollywood ones. I want to make films that remove their misconception.”

Read: Water for all: Gwadar desalination plant ready after probe

Ahmed’s father wants him to go to Dubai instead to make some money but he insisted on pursuing his passion for filmmaking. “I have started a small production concern in Quetta and I dream that one day I will make a film that will be showed in a cinema.”

His 20-minute-long film, called ‘Dhutuk’ meaning doll in Brahwi, comments on the devastating effects of terrorism on families. “I want to show that when one person dies in an act of terrorism, an entire family dies with him or her.” After coming to IDSP, Ali feels he has found his calling and knows what to work towards.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2015.

Forced to sell alcohol: Why is the ‘ummah’ silent over the plight of Chinese Muslims?

Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes. PHOTO: AFP

Imagine if you are a vegetarian Hindu and hold the cow sacred, that beef is shoved into your mouth. Imagine if you are a staunch Christian, that you are forbidden to baptise your newborn baby.

Painful? Yes.

Some of us may even say what’s new in this, and Pakistan’s minorities have suffered this and more. And they have. And no minority anywhere in the world should have to go through this.

But there is a huge difference in this and what is happening to the Muslims in Xinjiangprovince in China. In Pakistan, this is done at the hands of extremists. But in China, it is at an official level that Muslims are forbidden from practicing Islam. The last year or more has seen repeated incidents of Muslims, a religious minority in China, being coerced into going against their religious beliefs. That too under state patronage.

To remind ourselves, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan’s bestie, is where media is stillstate-owned. Instead of monitoring media, they control it! Coercion is also a norm when it comes to the nation’s reproductive health decisions. While family planning is a legitimate aim, the modus operandi is faulty and against the spirit of human freedom to lead lives as they see fit.

What is happening in Xinjiang is another example of this tendency we see in China. While it is justified if China wants to mitigate extremist groups in the region, why must all Muslims in the region have to suffer because of what some are doing?

It makes one shudder to see the news and images that on social media in recent months. Imams being forced to dance, fasting being banned, women being forcibly stopped from wearing veils and men not being allowed to grow beards . The imams were, in fact, made to swear to an oath that they would not teach religion to their children. They were forced to tell children that prayer was harmful for the soul and had to chant the slogan that,

“Our income comes from the CKP (Chinese Communist Party) not from Allah (SWT)”.

In a verdict that made headlines, a court in China sentenced a Uighur Muslim man to six years in prison for “provoking trouble” and growing a beard. His wife also, reportedly, was served a two-year sentence for using a veil to cover her face.

The recent most bit of news is very disturbing. Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes, and display them in eye-catching ways to undermine Islam’s influence on locals and as part of a campaign to weaken religion, according to reports.

While extremism leading to terrorism is something every nation will deal with in its own way, reactive policies end up, in fact, further fuelling extremism. The more you try to stop something by force and not via dialogue, the more it will get inflamed. The cycle of hate and violence will continue if we keep pushing communities and people against the wall.

While the Pakistan-China friendship is encouraging for our nation, one is forced to wonder how come our rulers, who claim to be staunch Muslims, have not raised their voice against all this in any forum. Is it a case of vested interests silencing an important issue?

Sadly, Pakistan is not the only Muslim country that has remained silent on this issue. The “ummah” remains conspicuous by its absence as usual, chooses its battles wisely, and only fights for causes that have an incentive in the end. There is no one to fight for the underdog. In this case, that is the Chinese Muslims. It seems that China is too strong, and the world is too enamoured by it or too indebted to it to take up this human rights issue.

What these people are being subjected to leaves us also with another introspection in the end. Part of the problem here is stereotyping. The beard. The pants above the ankles. The burqa. The face veil. Things that are expressions of a centuries’ old faith are being seen as signature marks of extremism, so much so that peace loving Muslims face reverse discrimination in their own communities and in their own homeland.

The next time we assess someone on the basis of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes we have been fed, let us check ourselves for unfairness that we all are often guilty of.

Do human rights activists hate Imran Khan because he is not a leftist?

Published: November 26, 2014

Imran may not be your typical human rights activist, but he is one all right. One of the best. PHOTO: AFP

The young girl who works as domestic help for me said,

Baji, do you know why our men don’t want Imran Khan to come into power? It is because they are scared that women in the villages will gain strength if he becomes our prime minister. Already, he supports women standing up for their rights. The jalsas are a proof of this. But we will make sure he wins. We are by his side.”

This was the morning after Imran gave an inspiring and honest talk from his container as PTI celebrated “Justice for Women Day”. I had heard that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would be celebrating this day a few weeks earlier from a friend who is active in PTI, and a close aid of Imran. I had asked her if the date, November 25th, had been chosen to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

“Really? It’s the same day? I’m not sure. You know how PTI works. We do what feels right, for the rights of the downtrodden. Doesn’t matter if it’s a special day or not.”

My default setting had taken over, and I had asked her if they had invited any known human rights’ activists for the occasion. She smiled and said,

“They don’t like us very much you know.”

As a human rights activist and a journalist who reports passionately on human rights and has friends from the field, I also support PTI’s stances on most things, if not all, and look up to Imran as a real hope for Pakistan, as a sincere leader, a philanthropist and humanist. The two things seem like opposites, which is why for a while I procrastinated writing this blog because it would mean choosing sides. Only, the traction is interesting, because I am clearly on both sides.

As for Imran, I see him as a proponent of human rights. He may not be the stereotypical human rights activist of Pakistan, and may not fit the niche group. But he stands up for the underdog, always. And that is what human rights work essentially is – to stand up for the marginalised and vulnerable communities – women, children, minorities, people in conflict zones, people suffering from injustice, people who don’t have money to pay hospital bills and send their children to good schools. The man stands up for social equality. His humanitarian work is a reflection of his belief in equal rights for all.

What then is the problem? Why won’t the human rights activists accept him and his work? They love Shaukat Khanum Hospital and Namal College, but certain things he said and did seem to have ruffled just the right (or left) feathers.

Being the advocate of both the devil and the angel (and I do not know who is who in this case), there are certain things at play here. For starters, while people like Edhi and Chiipa, and organisations like Alamgir Welfare Trust and even Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) social welfare wing’s efforts are lauded, they are seen as ‘humanitarian’ efforts. Human rights and their advocacy are seen as a different animal in Pakistani society, and over its history of more than six decades, a certain niche group of people have started being associated with this in the country. They are, in fact, seen as the stake holders of human rights. And with the package come certain pre-requisites. You have to be leftist, or left-off-centre, or at least completely secular, and be someone who does not bring religion into any talk of human rights.

I recall at a recent moot about women-friendly legislation where I was a panellist, a suggestion was floated that following the example of Indonesia, local Imams and clergy members be sensitised to women’s rights, and this be made a part of primary education. At this point, a very known and respected human rights activist who has contributed much to the country stood up in rage,

“What has religion got to do with this? Why must we bring God into everything?”

As much as we tried to explain that this could be done for all religious sects and leaders of minority communities could also be brought on board to fight evils like domestic violence, her reaction remained angry, till the organisers promised that the idea would be dropped.

Imran, in comparison, is clearly centrist in his approach. He cites examples from the life of the second righteous Caliph, Hazrat Umar (RA) and is clear that his dream is that “Pakistan should be an Islamic welfare state with equal rights for all”. In October this year, he dared to question the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) regarding where their funding comes from. Imran’s take is that anyone and everyone should be open to being questioned. But the reaction, not surprisingly, was “how dare he”, given the truly amazing work that has come out of HRCP for the people of Pakistan. This came as a retort to the HRCP saying that Imran and his party’s sit-ins are distracting from more important human rights issues. Add to it the very open issues between the Imran Khan camp and the Asma Jahangir camp. There is a history here, which I wish to leave aside. But the fact remains that this situation has added yet another dimension to the polarisation in Pakistani society.

The human rights camp remains unforgiving of Imran’s earlier stances on many issues, for example his earlier take on certain women-friendly legislations, or his openness to the idea of talking with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). His present softer stances are seemingly not enough for them to give him a chance and work hand in hand for a better future for Pakistanis.

This leaves people like me in a predicament, people who see sincerity on both sides; people who feel bridges should be built between both sides.

It is ironic that I am writing this a day after my paper published a report by human rights group Reprieve, stating that the CIA killed a whopping 221 people, including 103 children, in Pakistan in the hunt for just four men, and that 24 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times; missed strikes on these men killed 874 other people, and account for the 35% of all confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistani drone strikes. The humanist in me cannot write-off Imran as a humanitarian as well as a human rights activist, knowing that he took the strongest stance against “collateral damage” in drone attacks, which is a gross violation of human rights, and his work in the field of public health, education and his stand against injustice.

We live in times where things are neither simplistic nor black and white. If Pakistan has any hopes of uplifting the downtrodden in our society, the thing to do is to appreciate whatever good is being done by any one, whether from the left, the right or the centre. Imran has and is doing a lot of good for our people and stands up for their rights. He may not be your typical human rights activist, but he is one all right. One of the best.

Forsaken?: In Thar, depression claims what drought spares

Published: October 29, 2014

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: “Dhia Bheel was a beautiful young woman but always looked gloomy and frail. She couldn’t put up with hunger and domestic violence. She jumped into a well with her six-month-old child. I’ve witnessed two suicide cases in the last two months in my tiny village,” says Lado Meghwar, resident of village Meghi Jo Tar in Tharparkar.

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. And psychiatrists believe the persisting famine is creating psychological disorders among the Tharis, leading to suicidal tendencies.

In the past 10 months, 40 people have committed suicide in Tharparkar, including two cases of mothers killing themselves along with their children, according to a report prepared by a local NGO, AWARE.

More worrisome are the two cases of minors committing suicide. Thirteen-year-old shepherd Savaee Ghazi Meghwar of Kasbo village, district Nagarparkar, killed himself when his parents did not give him his pocket money.

The second case narrated by Marro Meghwar, a resident of Chapar Din village, is of a boy called Raimal, son of Chaman, aged 12, who threw himself into a well some 20 days back. “The child was mentally challenged. With such poverty how could they have even considered treatment?”

Psychiatrist Dr Lakesh Kumar Khatri confirms that suicide cases are on the rise in Tharparkar, and he links it mainly to depression. With the drought in Tharparkar prevailing for a third consecutive year, there is much to be depressed about.

This affects women and children the most, according to Khatri. Seventy-five per cent of patients of mental illnesses here are females, he claims.

“Problems overlap. Abject poverty leads to malnutrition, which affects sanity. Even if I do try to counsel a patient, it’s useless because malnutrition will lead to mental challenges. Such cases are more prone to suicide,” says Khatri. “They laugh when doctors suggest they eat fruits. ‘Our standard diet is dried red chilies with roti’, they say.”

Because of poverty, most depression cases go undiagnosed. “They don’t have money to feed themselves. How can they commute to Umerkot where we hold our free clinics?”

Thari women are malnourished. Their average hemoglobin level is eight to 10, which means they are also anemic. And their problems keep multiplying. More and more Thari men are moving to cities to try and earn a living, leaving their women lonelier and sadder.

Conversion Disorder, a mental illness in which psychological illness starts producing physical symptoms, is also common among Thari women. The realisation of their plight is equally painful. “While this awakening is a good thing, it is also painful, because the Thari people are realising how far behind they are,” says one doctor.

The state, however, is in a state of denial. Dr Lekhraj, who works at the state-run hospital in Chachro, denies any of these deaths were due to suicide. MPA Mahesh Kumar endorses Dr Lekhraj: “Maybe the women slipped and fell” into the wells.

That is because many blame the government for the depressing state of affairs in Tharparkar. Defending his government’s report card, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah this week claimed in a speech in the provincial assembly that his administration has recently arranged wheat worth Rs2 billion for the drought-hit areas of Tharparkar.

Ironically, he denied anyone had died of hunger over the past five years, and also contradicted reports of an unusual increase in child deaths in Tharparkar. Unofficially, more than 100 drought-affected children reportedly died in the region this year – 32 in the month of February alone.

MPA Mahesh Kumar concedes the drought situation this year ‘is worse’ than 2013, but he denies poverty could be blamed for the deaths and depression. “Other reasons like illicit affairs and family feuds can also be a reason,” claims Kumar. “Malnourishment is not just a problem of Tharparkar. It exists in other parts of Sindh and in Balochistan too. But now the media magnifies even the smallest incidences.”

Officials say they are giving 50 kg of wheat, free of cost, to every family. But local NGO’s insist very few families ever received the entire 50kg allotted to them. With the government insisting all problems will be solved with a 50kg bag of flour, the future looks bleak for the people of this neglected part of Pakistan.

Suicide in numbers

• 40 is the number of cases of suicide in Tharparkar district in the first ten months of 2014.

• A tehsil-wise ratio of suicides shows that 42% of the cases were in Mithi, 23% were in Nagarparkar, 20% in Chachro and 12% in Islamkot.

• 50% of the cases were men and 50% were women and children.

(Source: AWARE)

The reasons for suicide in order of most cases to least

• Poverty and unemployment

• Family feuds

• Domestic violence

• Mental disorders

• Mismatched marriages

(Source: AWARE.)

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2014.

Narrative around VIP-ism

Published: October 11, 2014

The writer is a senior sub editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

It was long before Rehman Malik was offloaded from flight PK-370. I was driving in a one-way lane of Khadda market, Karachi. I was on the correct side. From the wrong side came an entourage of cars. Two police vans in the front, one at the back and an SUV in the middle. A security guard hopped over to me and said, “Madam back karain. Aap ko pata naheen gaari mein kon hai.” I was tired and wanted to get home. This was too much hassle. So I backed off, let them pass, the sirens and flags et all. Who knows, if I would have dared to push my way in, I may have been shot at, even though I was not a threat.

The recent incident of the young man, Malik Tahir, being shot dead by the guards of ex-PM Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son has once again made the debate over what is being termed ‘VIP culture’, a burning issue. This is shortly after Arjumand Hussain and other passengers offloaded Senator Malik and MPA Ramesh Kumar for making them wait aboard the PIA flight. Without taking away any due credit from Hussain, who possibly lost his job due to this show of bravery, the fact remains that this nation has had enough. These incidences are now being seen as a metaphor for the ideal of equality. Ironically, the very champions of democracy have harmed this ideal the most in the past.

Such is the norm in Pakistan: queues are broken, traffic signals are disregarded, palatial mansions of absentee politicians are guarded by blocking off entire areas with containers, and we all stay quiet with resigned acceptance, seething with anger inside.

As a bureaucrat’s daughter, I grew up travelling in a flag-bearing car of the government of Pakistan. I never stood in lines at the airport and my luggage was whisked off by the ‘protocol’ hours before I casually reached the airport’s VIP lounge 30 minutes prior to the flight. Over time, I grew an aversion to this. It was all too unfair, too senseless and also too fleeting. The same people, who would go out of their way for you, couldn’t care less once you were out of service.

Societies evolve, inevitably. Muffled voices of an anti-VIP culture began with political parties promoting the welcome trend of middle class leadership questioning these practices. With Imran Khan’s slogan of ‘tabdeeli’, which essentially means questioning the status quo at all levels, the May 11, 2013 elections saw irate voters pushing back VIPs who tried to break the queue. “All this is not acceptable in Naya Pakistan.”

However, a problematic and confused narrative is building up around the term ‘VIP culture’. Questions need to be raised about what is exactly meant by the term. Affluence is being misconstrued as VIP-ism.

It is important to differentiate between the two because everyone with an SUV does not disregard traffic signals or overtake others on basis of having a bigger car, which has become a symbol of arrogance. Gilani’s family cannot be without security guards, and that is a fact. Everyone hiring security guards on personal expense or owning licenced weapons for safety concerns cannot be viewed as oppressors. De-weaponisation and getting rid of the dependence on security personnel still remains an unrealised dream in Pakistan, which will take time and systemic efforts to be realised. It would not be prudent for any political leader or a person in a position of power to take unnecessary risks. They owe it to their followers and people who look up to them to stay safe.

The problem arises when public property is infringed upon, when money the public pays as taxes is used to protect VIPs, when arrogance becomes the order of the day and when someone goes one-up on the common man using unjust means. The issue is when respect for human life becomes subjective, and when the life and honour of a senator or an MNA becomes more important than mine. And the anger is justified when Abdul Qadir Gilani’s life or Rehman Malik’s time is considered more precious than mine.

Sadly, we live in a society where value of human life depends on your financial and social status. We are used to a system where people in power literally get away with murder. This lack of accountability is where the problem lies. This is precisely what makes security guards armed with weapons so reckless.

But this pent-up anger is both dangerous and blinding. If economic and social disparity starts being viewed as VIP-ism and each one of us becomes a hero wanting to fight it, there will be chaos without order. When narratives become jumbled, activism becomes anarchy, and that, too, not anarcho-pacifism, but the full-blown kind. In these dangerous and angry times, it’s important we understand the difference.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2014.

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The Goodwill Ambassadors – Shining brighter than ever

Published: October 1, 2014

These people who are making this world a better place include those who are off the silver screen and performing stage, but are remarkable human beings.

For a moment, I felt star-struck, as Alicia Keys entered the room bustling with journalists from world over. We, a varied group of journalists, had been invited by the United Nations Foundation (UNF) to report on and learn from the experience of being in the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York for the UN General Assembly and the Climate Summit 2014.

All of us are fans of the many celebrities that we saw all around us in those few days. But once done with the initial gushing and surreal feeling of being in the presence of “stars”, we not only saw these goodwill ambassadors in a different light, but rediscovered them as bigger celebrities than we thought.

Anyone who has been inside the UN knows that the gray concrete flooring and white lights give it a formidable and cold ambiance. The warmth, then, came through these stars and the work they are doing. These people who are making this world a better place include those who are off the silver screen and performing stage, but are remarkable human beings. Like celebrated humanitarian Graca Machel, the widow of Nelson Mandela, who punctured the bubble of world leaders by criticising their speeches over the issue of climate change.  Or like the lesser known unsung female hero from Papua New Guinea, Ursula Rakova, who has pioneered an environmental movement that will save lives of generations.

Among the many celebrities from the performing arts who have embraced real life heroism by contributing to worthwhile causes, here are a few who made the mark this year at the UN:

1. Leonardo DiCaprio

“Honoured delegates, leaders of the world, I pretend for a living but you do not.”

Photo: Reuters

With an overgrown beard, a caveman look, DiCaprio looked different. But for once, it was not about his looks, his acting or his personal life. While friends sent messages asking why he had the bearded look, all I could hear was words that will go towards changing the life of millions.

His speech on the issue of climate change has been hailed as a game changer, calling upon world leaders for understanding and action. He began by saying,

“I stand before you not as an expert but as a concerned citizen, one of the 400,000 people who marched in the streets of New York on Sunday, and the billions of others around the world who want to solve our climate crisis”.

DiCaprio was referring to the People’s Climate March in Manhattan that brought attention to the issue like never before.

“I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe that mankind has looked at climate change in that same way,” said DiCaprio, ruffling just the right feathers.

2. Alicia Keys

“It’s not about me. It’s about we.”

Photo: Indrani Basu

As she sang the song We are here… for all of us, the theme song for her campaign, sniffs from the audience were audible. She told the crowd to hold the neighbour’s hand, a human chain, and we all did, experiencing a powerful moment.

“The song We are here is born from a very special place. The backdrop is everything that is going on in the world. There has been one issue after another: Syria, Nigeria, Gaza, Israel, Ferguson. I wanted to do something but did not know what. I used to have anxiety hearing about all of this. I would literally ache. There was a lot of what if, could we, would we! This work and this song is a dream come true,” said a visibly pregnant and highly motivated Keys.

Here, Keys pledged a million dollars to her We Are Here Movement at the fifth annual Social Good Summit. This Summit is defined as a convening of world leaders, media and technology leaders, activists working on grassroots, UN experts and voices from around the globe.

3. Emma Watson

“If not me, who? If not now, when?”

Photo: AFP

We always knew that this young woman who played the genius Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series is brilliant. But her masterstroke came as she redefined feminism as the UN Female Goodwill Ambassador. Watson extended an invitation to the men of the world to fight sexism. She spoke at the launch of the #HeForShe campaign which is a solidarity movement for gender equality.

“Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend you a formal invitation,” she said.

“Gender equality is your issue too.”

“For the record, feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes,’” said the remarkable young woman.

Watson has become, through this, a champion not just for women’s rights, but also a hero of many men world over, who agree with her that equal opportunities between the sexes cannot come around if only half of humanity is invited to participate in the conversation. Watson touched upon how feminism is often misconceived and associated with “man-hating”.

4. Kajol

“Help a child reach five.”

Photo: Twitter

Championing the cause of maternal and child health, Kajol graced the 69th annual UN General Assembly summit. She has been part of an active hand-washing campaign, Help A Child Reach Five, that aims at improving health of children and guarding them against illness and death in infancy and the age group under five years.

Kajol, in a tech savvy manner, used Twitter well to get the message of propagating this life-saving habit across.

“The cause is getting requisite attention through social media. It is reaching out to a lot more people.”

5. Linkin Park

“We encourage our fans to be more vocal about these things.”

Photo: United Nations Facebook page

Humble, sober and focused, Linkin Park singers Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda are very serious about making the world a better place, and they mean it. At the Climate Summit, they renewed their continued support for sustainable energy.

“Our message is very clear. Be bold and strong. We are counting on you guys to make the change. A fan is not someone who just thinks you are hot. It is someone whose trust you have won,” said Bennigton and Shinoda.

Their organisation Music for Relief does miscellaneous work for disaster relief and renewable energy causes.

Worries pile up as waste grows in Pakistan

Pakistan generates about 20 million tonnes of solid waste annually, and its dumps have become a hub for child labour.

 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/08/solid-waste-pakistan-karachi-2014867512833362.html
Last updated: 11 Aug 2014 

Some four million children, die each year from waste-related diseases in Pakistan [EPA]
Karachi, Pakistan – In the economic hub of Karachi, Ali, an 11-year-old child, awakens at dawn while the rest of his family sleeps next to burners and barrels that will be used to disintegrate metal waste.

The barrels contain acid, and wires and circuits will be burned in the open air, releasing harmful emissions. But Ali’s impoverished family needs whatever money they can get from this dirty business.

Muhammad Ishaq, 12, is another child hostage to the rubbish he collects for a scrap dealer. In return, the scrap-dealer gives his parents fixed Rs 2500 ($25) a month.

“My shed broke in the recent rains. Where will I live now?” is his recurrent concern, as he refers to the shed made also of, ironically, pieces of wood and cardboard he finds in the trash.

These children get food and clothes from NGOs or common people… They eat at charities and bathe in mosques. They are very susceptible to scabies and infected wounds. They suffer from diarrhoea all year round.

– Rana Asif, Founder of Initiator Human Development Foundation

A waste of a nation

Both Ishaq and Ali are among thousands of Pakistani children who work as scavengers, combing through piles of rubbish for a daily pay that maxes out at about $2.

Besides being out of school, these children face severe health hazards from the unsafe handling of waste.

“These children get food and clothes from NGOs or common people… They eat at charities and bathe in mosques. They are very susceptible to scabies and infected wounds. They suffer from diarrhoea all year round,” said Rana Asif, Founder of Initiator Human Development Foundation, that works for the welfare of street children.

Copper remains the most lucrative find for these boys. It is sold at Rs 500 ($5) a kilo, and aluminium at Rs 100 ($1) a kilo, and all of this is found in electronic waste.

These children – 95 percent of whom are male – are often found at Karachi’s biggest markets for e-waste in the Shershah, Lines Area and Regal neighbourhoods.

“We find computer monitors, and buyers buy them from us for a pittance, but sell it for much more. We get nothing,” said Yaargul Khan, 14, older brother of Ishaq.

Even as child labour remains rampant in Pakistan, almost 5.2 million people; including four million children, die each year from waste-related diseases in Pakistan.

A report by Triple Bottom-Line found that globally, many people did not know their old computers and televisions were shipped to countries such as China, India and Pakistan for “recycling”.

Manually dismantling electronic devices comes with a slew of health hazards, including exposure to toxic substances called furans and dioxins.

Burning these materials is even worse: A burning computer releases dioxins, lead, chromium and other toxic substances. Ali has no choice in the matter, and no gear to protect him from the fumes.

Pakistan generates about 20 million tonnes of solid waste annually, according to the country’s Environment Ministry, and that number is growing by about 2.4 percent each year. The waste management methods in Pakistan, however, remain poor.

The country’s most populous city, Karachi, generates an estimated 9,000 tonnes of waste daily, and garbage collectors cannot keep up.


Recycling is not widely practiced, and in many urban areas, dumping and trash burning are daily occurrences.

Asif Farooqi, the CEO of Waste Busters, a Pakistani waste management and recycling firm, says a big part of the problem is improper waste collection.

His team goes door-to-door collecting garbage bags – in Lahore alone, the company services 70,000 homes – and repurposes the contents. From inorganic trash, Waste Busters derives a form of fuel; from organic waste, they create compost.

Sadly, no organised or satisfactory system of solid waste management has been developed till now. The facilities are much too few compared to the waste generated.    

– Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui ,Commissioner of Karachi

“What we need from people is to stop open dumping and use garbage bags,” Farooqi told Al Jazeera. “And from the government all we need is administrative support. They should at least not create hurdles for us.”

Shifting the blame

While the administrator for the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), Rauf Akhtar Farooqui said the solid waste management is the responsibility of the District Municipal Corporations and not of KMC, the Commissioner of Karachi, Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui told Al Jazeera that it was, in fact, very much the responsibility of KMC.

“Sadly, no organised or satisfactory system of solid waste management has been developed till now,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The facilities are much too few compared to the waste generated.”

Siddiqui expressed hope that things will get better as a result of the recent formation of the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board.

“This applies to e-waste management as well,” he said.

In neighbouring Punjab province, where over half of Pakistan’s population lives, the Environment Protection Department openly acknowledges the shortfalls, stating on its website: “Environmental legislation is still not well developed in Pakistan, especially in comparison to the developed world. For example, there are no National Quality Standards for [solid waste management].”

Still some hope

The situation has created openings for environmental organisations such as Gul Bahao, which literally builds homes out of rubbish, using materials such as bubble wrap and thermocol.

“Attitudes are changing,” Gul Bahao’s Nargis Latif told Al Jazeera.

“Youth have joined hands with us. Students help us collect funds for this. I am very hopeful.”

Even as the south Asian giant struggles to manage its solid waste, its children continue to scavenge trash for petty income at the cost of their childhood, health and education.

Names of some children have been changed to protect their identity.

Follow Farahnaz Zahidi on Twitter: @FarahnazZahidi

This Eid, give back!

Published: July 28, 2014

Food distribution at Rafah Camp in Gaza. PHOTO: PCRF.NET

As the official number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) post operation Zarb-e Azb crosses a jarring one million mark and the death toll in Gaza looks ready to touch a thousand, Eid celebrations are laced by an underlying guilt and helplessness. Fortunately, people from across the world are coming up with ways to make it more meaningful for those in the straits of war.

While the world looks on in horror at the genocide in Palestine, each one of us is processing it in our own way. We, in Pakistan, protest on streets in small numbers and purge on social media in large numbers but only a committed few attempt to boycott products that directly benefit the perpetrators. Some creative youngsters like Saad Shahid and Hassan Iqbal are doing their part by selling T-shirts.There’s is a charity with a refreshing twist. Saad, founder of 9Lines, is the entrepreneur while Hassan is the creative genius. The two partners could not sit and watch what was happening and  came up with a collection of six T-shirts with catchy phrases, highlighting the Gaza cause. “The project has done extremely well. We get orders in large numbers, never single orders. People buy them to gift to others,” Saad says. They have sold more than 850 shirts already.  “All the proceeds go to our brothers and sisters in Palestine who deserve monetary and emotional help. This is our small contribution towards people who should be remembered, loved and cared for.”

Relief bags for IDPs prepared by Owais Sheikh and his team.

PHOTO: 9LINES.SHOP.WEB.PK

While 9Lines is a commercial set-up, focused primarily on selling fashion and lifestyle products, the dynamic duo have gravitated towards including charitable causes apart from helping Palestine as well. For instance, they have recently conducted a similar venture for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust wherein they had a stall and sold notebooks of Imran Khan for Rs600. The proceedings went back to the hospital. “Our future plan also includes a school to educate and place eunuchs at respectable jobs. They shouldn’t be mocked; instead they should be acknowledged as a respectable minority of Pakistan,” Saad says.

When it comes to charity, there is hardly a dearth of outlets one can take if they wish to give back. There is a general perception that the IDPs of North Waziristan have not been able to garner the kind of wave of charity that we saw after the earthquake of 2005 or floods of 2010. But the ‘Directory of Organizations Providing Relief to IDPs of North Waziristan’, complied by the Pakistan Centre for Development Communication (PCDC), sets the record straight by enlisting more than 60 NGOs, UN agencies and volunteers. The directory also identifies where exactly the donations will be going and provides information about donors, NGOs, social groups and volunteers that are providing relief to the affected families.

Owais Sheikh’s name may not be listed in the directory but this banker-cum-businessman has used each moment of the holy month of Ramazan wisely. Thanks to him and the many volunteers that helped, some 500 families in Bannu will not go hungry on Eid. Shaikh is hardly a novice at giving back to society. He spearheaded a similar drive in the wake of the disastrous floods as well.

“We don’t wake up till something becomes real,” Sheikh says about the lack of help from Pakistanis this time. He believes that people are now coming around and want to help but don’t know how to go about it. Not to mention, if the organisation leading the drive is deemed trustworthy, people would not hesitate to give back as much. “We have to understand the seriousness of the IDP issue. There are no camps as such. The displaced people are all staying at homes of their relatives,” he says, confirming that while the open-hearted hosts have welcomed the displaced, most of them lack adequate resources for themselves. And if the host has no food to offer, both families go hungry. “The tribals are a prouder race so they don’t want to beg. We have to help them out without their asking,” says Shaikh. The bags made by Shaikh and his team cost Rs 1,833 each, and are to last a family of five a week, with 12 items in each bag. Hailing from a military background, Shaikh is taking the help of rangers and using it to his advantage. “If we do not look after the IDPs, the vicious cycle will continue and more extremists will be created. This is our final run as a country. If we don’t help them out, tomorrow they will be against us.” Unlike many who feel charity begins at home and should stay at home, Shaikh emphasises that the two concerns, that is the one for IDPs and the one for Gaza, are not mutually exclusive.

A design by 9Lines. PHOTO: 9LINES.SHOP.WEB.PK

Disconnecting ourselves from what is going on around us is not an option this Eid. While our efforts maybe tiny drops in the ocean, taking a single step and being generous will help make Eid better for everyone around the world.

How You Can Help

The number of registered families of IDPs is currently 49,857. This is expected to rise to 60,000.

IDPs of North Waziristan:

•  Check out this directory at https://sites.google.com/site/thecivilsocietyforumofpakistan/list-of-donors-ngos-providing-relief-to-idps-of-waziristan

•  Look out for individual drives and volunteers leading donation drives.

•  Get in touch with people of the area and once you have found credible contacts, start a donation drive yourself with your friends. The IDPs will need our help for a long time to come.

Gaza:

•  Buy T-shirts for the Gaza cause from 9Lines at http://9lines.shop.web.pk/

•  Get money across to the Palestine RED CRESCENT. One way of sending funds to them or other credible organisations is to get in touch with the Embassy of the state of Palestine in Pakistan at palestine.pk65@hotmail.com or palestineembassy.com.pk

•  Donations can be made online to The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) at http://www.pcrf.net/

•  Be on the lookout for individuals and groups collecting funds for Gaza but make sure you have checked out credibility.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 27th, 2014.

 

http://tribune.com.pk/story/740601/this-eid-give-back/