ICDI’s Mathijs Euwema and Margaret Kernan were in Pakistan for the HER CHOICE-programme, preventing child marriage, together with HER CHOICE coordinator Odilia van Manen and staff members of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mathijs Euwema wrote a blog about their visit.
When we drive away from Benazir Bhutto airport (named after the female Prime Minister of Pakistan, who was killed in a terrorist attack) to Islamabad, the first thing we notice are the containers straddled across the highway in several places. ‘Those are to fend off demonstrations’, our driver says kind of matter-of-factly. There is a lot of socio-political unrest in Pakistan, and that basically has been the case since the country was formed in 1947. Obviously people have become used to this kind of turmoil.
My colleague Margaret Kernan and I have come to Pakistan with staff from other Dutch organizations and from the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to streamline our efforts in fighting child marriages. This remains a persistent scourge in the lives of young girls, with between 20 to 30 per cent forcibly married before they are 18 years old.
Our first working day starts in the office of Oxfam, the big international development aid organisation, where we get a security briefing. Security or the lack thereof, is another issue that is seemingly very normal in Pakistan. Although the number of terrorist attacks have lessened (now just a mere 20 compared to around 400 per year a few years ago), it becomes clear to us that Pakistan is still a dangerous place. In fact, on the day before we left for Pakistan there was a serious incident in the city of Peshawar, where terrorists attacked members from the Christian minority. I have been to many other war affected areas in the world and during the week I notice a similar experience I had to those places: the abnormality becomes normal very quickly. I don’t feel unsafe, but maybe this is also due to the fact that all the Pakistani people we meet are very friendly and hospitable.
After a meeting with all the organisations, in which we present to each other our programmes to combat child marriage, we pay a visit to the Dutch Embassy. This is located in the so-called ‘Diplomatic Enclave’. The name says it all: it is a completely bordered off neighbourhood, where all the embassies are located. Again security plays a huge role: before getting in, our car has to go through two checkpoints, where bearded men in uniforms check our papers and look with mirrors under the car for possible explosive devices. In sharp contrast to this, the very friendly lady from the Embassy tells us how much she loves Pakistan, and that she is likely to sign up for another year to stay.
The second day we meet members from the communities where our partner organisation Bedari is working. It is impressive and at times sad to hear first-hand stories about child marriage and how this negatively affects the lives of not just the girls themselves, but also the lives of their children. But there is hope. Things are already changing and less girls than before are being married under 18. Bedari tells us that what especially seems to be working in changing attitudes and behaviours of parents, is when they hear from their daughters how badly child marriage has affected them. This was never talked about before.
In the afternoon we talk to a group of young parliamentarians (‘young’ being relative; it means they were under 40 when first elected). They are a nice bunch, but the difference with the people we met in the morning is big. These young parliamentarians clearly all come from privileged backgrounds; it is hard to imagine that they have real insights into the circumstances of ordinary people living in the villages. And anyway, elections are coming up next year, who knows which one of them will still be there after that?
On the Wednesday and Thursday Margaret and I finally get to do what we have been looking forward to: training with the staff from our partner organisation Bedari. They are a long standing partner of ICDI, we worked with them for the past five years, but due to the security situation we had not been able to visit them in Pakistan for a long time (although some of their staff members visited us in The Netherlands). It really feels a bit like coming home. The staff of Bedari is mostly made up of very enthusiastic, energetic women, many of whom come from the communities in which they work. During the training we talk about child development, child abuse, counselling and effects of child marriage. We also have a session on sexual and reproductive health rights. This is such a sensitive issue, even within Bedari, that we have to split up the group. So I do the session separately with the four male staff members, while Margaret works with the fifteen women. It’s a very interesting experience: on the one hand staff clearly knows a lot about the topic, on the other hand there are also misconceptions amongst the men about –what we would consider- common knowledge issues, like masturbation. While the women feel very comfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health and hygiene – they describe how the notion of sexual and reproductive rights for women is for them a very difficult subject to raise in the communities where they work.
The main, overarching conclusion I draw from all what I have heard this week, is that in Pakistan there is a great lack of personal freedom. The choices people can make are limited, and for girls and women even more so. This is not just due to the lack of security, it’s actually much more a cultural, and maybe partially also a religious phenomenon. An old Pakistani friend of ours, whom we meet one evening, is someone who has always challenged these norms and who agrees wholeheartedly with my conclusion. She says: ‘If I had my own column in a newspaper, I would call it “Personal Freedom”’. I hope someday she will get her column. No, I am sure one day she will have this column.
On the Thursday afternoon we get a chance to visit the Bedari office, which they recently moved into. It’s a very tidy and homely place, with posters on the wall to remind staff of the mission of Bedari (‘A society where women and girls enjoy equal status as human beings’). We discuss some outstanding matters with the admin staff and the director, and we exchange some final gifts (I get a beautiful Pakistan man-dress, which I wear on the plane and until I am back home in The Netherlands). In the evening we go for a joint dinner, on a hill overlooking Islamabad. We get a security clearance to go to this restaurant just in time.
The same night we fly back. At Benazir Bhutto airport we are somewhat surprised by the apparent lack of security measures. By now we have become used to these.
Mathijs Euwema, director International Child Development Initiatives