Poverty, women and possibilities

What happens if each Pakistani woman under the poverty line is allocated 15 to 20 trees as her ‘future property’

Poverty, women and possibilities

In Pakistan, women’s gainful economic participation, more and meaningful social, political presences, reduction in harassment at work place, and absence of domestic violence have close connections.

On March 8, international women’s day is celebrated in many countries including Pakistan. In Europe and USA, this has been happening for over a hundred years. The UN observes yearly themes to celebrate this day since 1996. The theme for 2015 is: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!

The global average of forest cover is about 30 per cent; in Asia it is 20 per cent; but in Pakistan it is less than 3 per cent. Some claim its 4.8 per cent, but that claim in my view is confusing the forest cover with the green cover.

There is a large agreement that more forests and increased presence of women in public and social spaces add beauty and colours to earth, environment and society. Many may agree that reviling forests through illegal cuttings and pushing women behind the walls of control, coercion and aggression make earth and ecology, and society and culture, arid, barren and unlivable.

This piece argues an inventive proposition that how more forests in Pakistan can help more women in more ways than have been envisaged so far. It offers food for thought that increased green cover can enhance the possibilities of women’s meaningful empowerment through intelligent politics.

But first, a few words about the way we usually and typically observe women’s day.

If you have attended a women’s day and recall a typical speech of typical male speaker, his speech starts with an assertion of the importance women have had in history, religions and folklore. Then a sentimental mention is made in the names of mothers and daughters (mention of sisters and wives is filtered to fit the sensitivity of the audience). Then he highlights women’s potential and promise. Then a long lament of the state and status of women starts, which sounds like a fake confession. The other men in audience generally leave with more guilt and less motivation to do something great to make the lives of women better, in their respective lives.

This article is not a lament. It’s neither a statement of celebration because there is hardly anything to celebrate in the domain of collective pride for men: we have not done something great for our women out of foresight, wisdom or group action. The individual sprinkling of affectionate charity aside!

Some thoughtful politics can transform women, their plight and poverty into refreshing and green possibilities.

Women have been taken as lesser entities by policy makers due to flawed perception about women’s fragile ability and frail agency. Their smaller than possible, lesser than desired and shorter than required presence and participation in social, political and economic spheres are both cause and consequence of historical and institutional discrimination and exclusion spearheaded by men, customs, laws and politics.

This flawed perception, and the state and status of women will change when their economic status and consequently their negotiation leverages improve. The ‘weaker’ position in capitalist scheme of things is due to women’s economic dependence, which also makes them vulnerable to violence and coercion.

By corollary, this denotes that women’s empowerment is function of tradable skills, and improvements in their socio-economic status will help reduce their poverty and increase social leverages. Such leverage will enable them to pre-empt, prevent, negotiate and eventually end violence and exclusion as well.

So far most of the efforts to empower women in Pakistan have been like a series of random bridges without a connecting road.

Women, like other poor, are not a bankable entity in the eyes of commercial banks or those who can offer credits leading to learning, earning and enjoying their being. The micro-credit schemes of NGOs have been a cause of concern. Though such schemes showed success in being viable investments, they have not had sustainable transformation or impact of scale in the lives of beneficiary women. Continued absence of collateral keeps women out of the loop of productive cycle of gainful economic participation.

Now let’s look at the forests in Pakistan. Currently, the percentage of forests is 3 per cent whereas the optimal forest cover is 25 per cent; and given the topographic variety in Pakistan, that is both desirable and possible.

The natural forests in Pakistan are in the mountainous regions of north i.e., Himalaya, Hindukush and Karakoram ranges. Over 60 per cent of our 3 per cent forests are there. The rest are scattered among south-western mountains of Balochistan, in the plains of Punjab and Sindh and the coastal areas of Arabian Sea in south.

Ecologically, Pakistan has rich variety of ‘ecological zones’ which are defined and divided according to the moisture availability, temperature, elevation from sea level and soil conditions. They have titles like Alpine zone, Temperate zone, Sub-Tropical and Tropical zones and Costal zone. Each zone offers particular blend of environmental, topographic and climatic conditions which support particular set of trees.

In simple language, having such a variety of zones means we can grow large variety and plenty of forests.

All banks and many governments invest in future commodities. A future commodity means, an assumed produce down the road. Like when Starbucks coffee in 2015 buys the harvest in South America or Africa for the year 2019 or 2023, that is called investing in future commodities.

My proposition is that we in Pakistan increase the forest cover from existing less than 5 per cent to proposed 25 per cent in the next one decade; which is the plantation part, as different types of trees take different time to mature, to yield wood or fruit. The additional 20 per cent forestation can comprise a prudent mix of timber, fruit and medicinal plants with ecological fit between particular flora and the tropical zones.

Each Pakistani woman under the poverty line can be allocated a set of 15 to 20 trees which is her ‘future property’ that can be placed as virtual collateral with banks. Thus if every women under the poverty line has access to say Rs400,000 credit line in the first three years, and  another Rs600,000 in the next 4 years, in seven years an access to one million rupees credit will bring huge transformation in her learning, skill development, setting up a small enterprise and leading to a sustainable prosperity.

In the language of design, they say, form follows function. In the language of public policy, we say mechanisms are easier to design to realise an idea and translate a slogan into reality.

Now imagine one fourth of Pakistan wrapped in green; and half of our women running green and smart enterprises in a decade; and then softly repeat: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!

Poverty, women and possibilities