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December 19, 2015

Let’s talk about human rights


December 19, 2015

December 10 marked the International Human Rights Day. To commemorate the day, Islamabad – like other parts of the country – hosted a number of events to highlight its importance and stress the need for renewed commitments against human rights violations. The events featured stories of human rights violations and generated debates on how to create mass awareness regarding the fundamental human rights of citizens.

Some of us who attended these events may have enjoyed the heated debates by heavyweight scholars, academicians, political figures and civil society members but what next? Everyone, as usual, would have been back to their usual business in their luxurious cars after delivering lengthy emotional speeches followed by lavish lunches/dinners and hi-teas – looking forward to the next event of the same nature in the year ahead.

Such ‘days’ of national and international importance are always celebrated with great zeal and fervour but often without those whom the occasions are meant for. Days for children or for workers or the labour are often celebrated at fancy facilities but with no attendance of the stakeholders themselves.

Pakistan is a country where one wakes up every day to see a new story in the making. And almost all these stories can be related to human rights violations. From human security to economic security and food to energy security, our human rights are constantly violated. The summer season multiplies human suffering with hours-long electricity outages while the freezing winter paralyses life when gas runs short – both for domestic and commercial use.

Poverty, hunger, unemployment, price hikes and disease are all-weather problems. But if one has to prioritise issues, two major problems would top the list – corruption (with bad governance as a result) and the worsening security situation now engulfing the entire country. Bad governance normally refers to the lack of service delivery, especially in the areas of health and education.

The deteriorating situation of our national health can be gauged from the fact that only 0.7 percent of the total GDP is allocated to maintaining the health of over 180 million Pakistanis as against the World Health Organization standards that range between 4 and 5 percent of the GDP. A large number of Pakistanis suffer from Hepatitis B and C, diabetes, cancer, and cardiac diseases; and there is a considerable number affected by various mental diseases. The infant and maternal mortality rates are also high – and increasing.

Poor transportation and ill-staffed and ill-equipped health facilities contribute more to the rising infant and maternal mortality rates. Medical experts believe that lack of safe drinking water, lack of proper disposal of human waste, low immunisation and malnutrition are the main reasons behind the rising infant mortality rate. To that end, it is surprising to note that even in the major cities of the country only up to 60 percent of the people have access to safe drinking water.

For example, 70 percent of the water in Peshawar is said to be contaminated and polluted. Live poliovirus was found in the water when tested in a locality in Peshawar. According to the Pakistan Demographic Survey, only 38 percent of the people are fully immunised.

A study conducted by the National Nutrition Survey (NNS 2011) says that 40 percent of children in the country are malnourished; 49 percent of the women in the country suffer from iron deficiency. And there is of course then no surprise that a malnourished lactating woman would give birth to children suffering from various birth defects – physical and mental challenges etc. And this malnourishment, coupled with low immunisation statistics and ignorance, proves more harmful when extreme poverty is thrown into the equation. Forty percent of the people of Pakistan are living below the poverty line, their income less than two dollars a day.

According to a survey conducted by the Aga Khan Foundation, it costs one Rs875 to go to a proper medical practitioner for consultation.

And it becomes even more difficult for the relatives of a patient if they have to travel from remote areas with a serious disease that involves thorough medical investigations and medication. A man with 7-8 children – something quite normal when it comes to traditional societies – can hardly cope with the situation given the meagre resources at his disposal. This makes one opt either for a spiritual healer or a quack. In a traditional society like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) where the literacy statistics stand at 17 percent for men and only three percent for female, the situation is even worse.

This becomes even more complex on the education front. According to the data available with the Fata Secretariat in Peshawar, there are a total of 5,620 educational institutions including 196 mosque schools, 3,640 primary schools, 455 middle, 275 high, 13 higher secondary, 37 degree colleges, 4 elementary colleges, 956 community schools and 44 Industrial Home Centers – with 3,271 educational centers for boys and 2,349 for girls. The number of students enrolled in these institutions is 607,004 with 405,602 boys and 201,402 girls. Ironically, most of these schools exist only on paper; they are the infamous ghost schools we regularly hear about.

The 2008-2009 Annual School Census Report of the government on education institutions says that a total of 1,015 primary schools in Fata – 87 of them for girls – have no boundary walls. Similarly 1,316 boys and 583 girls schools do not have drinking water facility. Around 1,555 schools – including 454 for girls – have no electricity while 1,453 boys and 344 girls schools have no toilets at all. Is this not a violation of the fundamental human rights of these children?

As per the annual report of the World Food Programme, six regions of the war-ravaged Fata have been declared “severely food insecure”. North and South Waziristan and the Orakzai Agencies, Frontier Region D I Khan, Frontier Region Tank and Frontier Region Kohat have been declared ‘severely food insecure’ while the Khyber and Mohmand agencies have been placed in the category of ‘high food insecure’ areas.

The report says that the prevailing law and order situation has resulted in the highest levels of acute food insecurity because of poor food availability, access or utilisation. The WFP is the main food provider to thousands of families displaced internally in the wake of rising militant activities and subsequent military operations. A registered family gets 80 kilogram of wheat flour, one gallon cooking oil, five kilograms of pulses and one packet of salt every month. The freezing winter ahead has multiplied the worries of thousands of families who have been spending their bitter nights in the hope of a better tomorrow. Some of the IDPs have been languishing at these camps for years now.

By changing only the name – from Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Temporarily Dislocated Persons (TDPs) – to what extent are we honouring their human dignity? Let’s talk about human rights.

The writer is the executive director of Zcomms in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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