Benazir Bhutto

Address at the Fourth World Conference on Women - Sept. 4, 1995

Benazir Bhutto
September 04, 1995— Beijing, China
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Madam Chairperson,

Mr. Secretary General,

Distinguished Delegates,


Pakistan is grateful to the Government and the people of China for hosting this Conference. We have been deeply touched by the warm welcome and gracious hospitality.

I pay a special tribute to the Secretary General of the United Nations and Mrs. Gertrude Mongella, the Secretary General of the Conference for their tireless efforts in organizing this meeting.

My dear sisters, ladies and gentlemen!

There is a moral crisis engulfing the world as we speak, a crisis of injustice and inaction, a crisis of silence and acquiescence. The crisis is caused by centuries and generations of oppression and repression. This conference, therefore, transcends politics and economics. We are dealing with a fundamental moral issue. This is a truly historic occasion. Some 40,000 women have assembled here to demand their rights; to secure a better future for their daughters; to put an end to the prejudices which still deny so many of us our rightful place in society.

On this solemn occasion I stand before you not only as a Prime Minister but as a woman and a mother—A woman proud of her cultural and religious heritage, a woman sensitive to the obstacles to justice and full participation that still stand before women in almost every society on earth. As the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation, I feel a special responsibility towards women's issues and towards all women. And as a Muslim woman, I feel a special responsibility to counter the propaganda of a handful that Islam gives women a second class status.

This is not true. Today the Muslim world boasts three women Prime Ministers, elected by male and female voters on our abilities as people, as persons, not as women. Our election has destroyed the myth built by social taboo that a woman's place is in the house, that it is shameful or dishonorable or socially unacceptable for a Muslim woman to work. Our election has given women all over the Muslim world moral strength to declare that it is socially correct for a woman to work and to follow in our footsteps as working women and working mothers. Muslim women have a special responsibility to help distinguish between Islamic teachings and social taboos spun by the traditions of a patriarchal society.

This is a distinction that obscurantists would not like to see. For obscurantists believe in discrimination. Discrimination is the first step to dictatorship and the usurpation of power. A month ago, Pakistan hosted the first ever conference of Women Parliamentarians of Muslim world. Never in the history of Islam had so many working women and elected representatives gathered together at one place to speak in one voice.

As over a 100 delegates from 35 Muslim countries gathered together, I felt an enormous sense of pride that we women had each other for strength and support, across the globe and across the continents to face and oppose those who would not allow the empowerment of women.

And, today, I feel that same sense of pride, that we women have gathered together at Beijing, at this ancient capital of an ancient civilization to declare: we are not alone in our search for empowerment, that women across continents are together in the search for self-esteem, self-worth, self-respect and respect in society itself. In distinguishing between Islamic teachings and social taboos, we must remember that Islam forbids injustice; Injustice against people, against nations, against women.

It shuns race, color, and gender as a basis of distinction amongst fellowmen. It enshrines piety as the sole criteria for judging humankind. It treats women as human beings in their own right, not as chattels. A woman can inherit, divorce, receive alimony and child custody. Women were intellectuals, poets, jurists and even took part in war. The Holy Book of the Muslims refers to the rule of a woman, the Queen of Sabah. The Holy Book alludes to her wisdom and to her country being a land of plenty.

The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) himself married a working woman. And the first convert to Islam was a woman, Bibi Khadija. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) emphatically condemned and put an end to the practice of female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia. The Holy Quran reads: When news is brought to one of them, of the birth of a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief what shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had. Shall he retain it on sufferance and contempt, or bury it in the dust. Ah ! what an evil choice they decide on (Surah Al-Nahl, Ayat-57, 58, 59)

Ladies and gentlemen! How true these words ring even today. How many women are still "retained" in their families "on sufferance and contempt" growing up with emotional scars and burdens. How tragic it is that the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide still haunts a world we regard as modern and civilized. Girl children are often abandoned or aborted.

Statistics show that me now increasingly outnumber women in more than 15 Asian nations. Boys are wanted. Boys are wanted because their worth is considered more than that of the girl. Boys are wanted to satisfy the ego: they carry on the father's name in this world. Yet too often we forget that for Muslims on the Day of Judgment, each person will be called not by their father's name but by the mother's name. To please her husband, a woman wants a son. To keep her husband from abandoning her, a woman wants a son.

And, too often, when a woman expects a girl, she abets her husband in abandoning or aborting that innocent, perfectly formed child. As we gather here today, the cries of the girl child reach out to us. This conference need to chart a course that can create a climate where the girl child is as welcomed and valued as a boy child, that the girl child is considered as worthy as a boy child.

When I was chairperson of the South Asian Association of Regional Countries, SAARC declared 1989 as the Year of the Girl Child. Six years later, the girl child's vulnerability continues. And it continues, not because of religion in the case of Pakistan, but because of social prejudice. The rights Islam gave Muslim women have too often been denied. And women are denied rights all over the world, whether developed or developing. All over the world women are subjected to domestic violence. Often a woman does not walk out for she has nowhere to go. Or she stays and puts up with the domestic violence for the sake of her children.

We in Pakistan have started a public awareness campaign against domestic violence through the mass media to inform women that domestic violence is a crime and to alert men that they can be punished for it. Often women, in many a society are tortured, not only by men, but by women in-laws too, for financial benefits from the woman's family. Sometime a wife is killed by her husband or in-laws so that they can gain another wife and more dowry. Dowry system is a social ill against which we must raise our voices and create greater awareness. Women are not only victims of physical abuse, women are victims of verbal abuse. Often men, in anger and frustration, indulge in the uncivilized behavior of rude and vulgar language against women. Unfortunately, women at times also use vulgar language to denigrate another woman.

So we have to work together to change not only the attitudes of men but the attitudes of men and women. Women have become the victims of a culture of exclusion and male dominance. Today more women than men suffer from poverty, deprivation, and discrimination. Half a billion women are illiterate. Seventy per cent of the children who are denied elementary education are girls. In Pakistan we are concentrating on primary education for girls to rectify this imbalance. We are concentrating on training women teachers and opening up employment avenues for women.

It is my firm conviction that a woman cannot ultimately control her own life and make her own choices unless she has financial independence. A woman cannot have financial independence if she cannot work. The discrimination against women can only begin to erode when women are educated and women are employed. If my Father had not educated me or left me with independent financial means, I would not have been able to sustain myself or to struggle against tyranny or to stand here before you today as a special guest speaker. If the girl child is to be valued, if the wife is to say "No" to domestic violence then we owe a special obligation to creating jobs for women.

That is why we in Pakistan, set up in 1989 the Women's Bank. A Bank run by women for women to aid and assist women in setting up their own enterprises to gain financial independence and with it the freedom to make one's own choices. Today 23 branches of the Women's Bank in Pakistan help working women. Our major cities are marked by enterprises set up by women: bakeries, restaurants, boutiques, interior decoration. We have lifted the ban on Pakistani women taking part in international sporting events.

In 1997 we host the Second Muslim Women's Olympics. Special sporting facilities are being set up to encourage participation by Pakistani women in sports. And Pakistani women are playing a significant role in defusing the population bomb in Pakistan. One hundred thousand women are to be trained to reduce Pakistan's population growth levels and its infant mortality levels.

When I visit poverty stricken villages with no access to clean drinking water, it gladdens my heart to see a lady health visitor, to see a working woman amidst the unfortunate surroundings. For it is my conviction that we can only conquer poverty, squalor, illiteracy and superstition when we invest in our women and when our women begin working. Begin working in our far flung villages where time seems to have stood still and where the Bullock not the tractor is still used for cultivation;

Where women are too weak from bearing too many children. Where the daughters are more malnourished than the sons for the daughters get to eat the leftovers. Where villagers work night and day with their women and children, to eke out an existence; Where floods and rain wash out crops and destroy homes; Where poverty stalks the land with an appetite that cannot be controlled until we wake up to the twin reality of population control and women's empowerment. And it is here that the United Nations and its Secretary General have played a critical role.

Distinguished Delegates! Some cynics argue about the utility of holding this conference. Let me disagree with them.

The holding of this conference demonstrates that women are not forgotten, that the world cares. The holding of this conference demonstrates solidarity with women. The holding of this conference makes us determined to contribute each in our own way, in any manner we can, to lessen the oppression, repression and discrimination against women. And while much needs to be done, each decade has brought with it its own small improvement.

When I was growing up, women in my extended family remained behind closed walls in village homes. Now we all travel to cities or abroad. When I was growing up, women in my extended family all covered ourselves with the Burqa, or veil from head to foot when we visited each others for weddings or funerals— the only two items for which we were allowed out. Now most women restrict themselves to the Dupatta or Chadar and are free to leave the house.

When I was growing up, no girl in my extended family was allowed to marry if a boy cousin was not available for fear of the property leaving the family. Now girls do marry outside the family. When I was growing up, the boy cousin inevitably took a second wife. Now girls do not expect their husbands to marry again. From the norm, it has become the exception to the norm.

When I was growing up, women were not educated. I was the first girl in my family to go to university and to go abroad for my studies. Now it has become the norm for girls to be educated at university and abroad when the families can afford it. I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime.

But I hope to see many more changes and some of these changes I hope will flow from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calling for the elimination of discrimination against women. I hope some of these changes will flow from the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination which Pakistan signed last month.

Of course there was resistance from many quarters. But we are determined to move forward in fulfilling our dream of a Pakistan where women contribute their full potential.

Distinguished Delegates! As women, we draw satisfaction from Beijing Platform of Action which encompasses a comprehensive approach towards the empowerment of women. But women cannot be expected to struggle alone against the forces of discrimination and exploitation.

I recall the words of Dante who reminded us that: "The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis."

Today in this world, in the fight for the liberation of women, there can be no neutrality. But my dear sisters, we have learned that democracy alone is not enough. Freedom of choice alone does not guarantee justice. Equal rights are not defined only by political values. Social justice is a triad of freedom, of equality, of liberty: Justice is political liberty. Justice is economic independence. Justice is social equality.

Delegates, Sisters! Empowerment is not only a right to have political freedom. Empowerment is the right to be independent; to be educated; to have choices in life. Empowerment is the right to have the opportunity to select a productive career; to own property; to participate in business; to flourish in the market place.

Pakistan is satisfied that the draft Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women negotiated so far focuses on the critical areas of concern for women and outlines an action-oriented strategy for the solution of their problems. However, we believe that the Platform needs to address the questions of new and additional resources, external debt, structural adjustment programs, human rights of women, protection of women entrapped in armed conflicts and the realization of the right to self-determination of the territories still under foreign occupation and alien domination. It must also seek to strengthen the role of the traditional family as the bedrock of the society. Disintegration of the family generates moral decay. This must be arrested.

The Platform is disturbingly weak on the role of the traditional family. This weakness can lead to misinterpretation, and even distortion by opponents of the women's agenda. We have seen much progress. The very fact that we convene in Beijing today is a giant step forward.

But new clouds darken the horizon. The end of the cold war should have ushered in peace and an era of progress of women. Regrettably, the proliferation of regional tensions and conflicts have belied our aspirations. As in the past, women and girls have again been the most direct victims of these conflicts—the most helpless, and thus the most abused.

The use of rape as a weapon of war and an instrument of "ethnic cleansing" is as depraved as it is reprehensible. The unfolding of this saga in different parts of the world, including Jammu and Kashmir and Bosnia Herzegovina has shaken the conscience of the entire international community. The enormity of the tragedy dwarfs our other issues—urgent though they are. This conference must, therefore, express its complete solidarity with our sisters and daughters who are victims of armed conflict, oppression, and brutality. Their misfortunes must be our first priority.

Madam Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen!

I come before you to speak of the forces that must shape the new decade, the new century, the new millennium.

We must shape a world free from exploitation and maltreatment of women. A world in which women have opportunities to rise to the highest level in politics, business, diplomacy, and other spheres of life. Where there are no battered women. Where honor and dignity is protected in war and conflict. Where we have economic freedom and independence. Where we are equal partners in peace and development. A world equally committed to economic development and political development. A world as committed to free markets as to women's emancipation.

And even as we catalogue, organize, and reach our goals, step by step by step, let us be ever vigilant. Repressive forces always will stand ready to exploit the moment and push us back into the past.

Let us remember the words of the German writer, Goethe: "Freedom has to be re-made and re-earned in every generation." We must do much more than decry the past. We must change the future.

Remembering the words of a sister parliamentarian Senator, Barbara Mikulski, that "demography is destiny", I believe time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.

We are here in Beijing to proclaim a new vision of equality and partnership. Let us translate this vision into reality in the shortest possible time.

Thank you Madam Chairperson.

Panhwar, Sani H. (ed). 2009. Benazir Bhutto: Selected Speeches 1989-2007. Hyderabad : M.H. Panhwar Trust.