Do consumers have rights in Pakistan?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The World Consumer Rights’ Day was observed internationally on March 15. As a token observance, the Helpline Trust made a single-handed bid to remind the government and the people of Pakistan about the importance of consumer rights.

The day has been observed the world over since 1983 with the idea of making consumers — which in effect means everyone who buys goods or services — aware of their rights so that they can demand protection for them.
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Importance of protest

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

March 19, was the second anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Although several rallies and demonstrations were held in Europe protesting against the war and calling for the withdrawal of American troops from the war ravaged country, the voices were relatively muted.

In Pakistan it was hardly remembered that it was on this day two year ago when terror rained down on Baghdad. Apart from a handful of demonstrators, who described themselves as the citizens of Pakistan and observed a token show of protest before the Karachi Press Club by holding placards with anti-American slogans inscribed on them, the day went largely unnoticed.
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The flip side of information

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT was some time in the early nineties when the high commissioner for New Zealand in Islamabad said, while launching a book his mission had funded, that the coming decade would be the age of information.

Those were days when information technology had barely picked up in this country, cell phones were a rarity and a status symbol of the elite, only the CNN had started its round the clock worldwide channel and not many knew about the wonders of the Internet. But the high commissioner’s words were prophetic.

Today, it takes no time at all for news and information to travel from one end of the globe to the other. E-mails, satellite television, modern phone services equipped with cameras and the worldwide web have made the world a global village. Communication has enabled people to cross boundaries with ease and has broken down cultural and language barriers. This has brought people closer and promoted greater interaction between them than has ever happened before in human history.

Technology has also changed the shape of the media. It is now more interactive. Viewers can ring in to ask questions on talk shows and the Internet allows people to send in their feedback instantaneously, without much of a hassle. Anyone can, making a small payment, set up a website which can be accessed by anyone. These are positive developments because they have stimulated human interest in information.
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Doctors in the dock

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The woes of the health sector in Pakistan are unending. It is strange that given the large number of people affected by the government’s health policy – the people, the medical practitioners, the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the health institutions, the local bodies, the civic agencies responsible for primary and community health – the various issues of concern which crop up from time to time are not taken seriously.

We are constantly being told that a new national health policy will be announced soon. But, (although Sindh has announced a provincial health policy) that beguiling document does not see the light of day. And the masses continue to suffer.
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And now another one

By Zubeida Mustafa

The story doing the rounds these days is a shocking one about a girl and three or four boys, one of them her brother, studying in a school or a college of Karachi. It has kept the mothers of young girls awake for several nights. The general reaction has been one of fear and anxiety. Is this what our society has come to, it is being asked.

Women talking in whispers at parties, in offices or anywhere they come together are narrating what they have heard about the girl who was gang raped by her fellow students who gained access to the ladies’ room where the heinous act occurred after bribing the maasi. The last boy to enter happened to be the victim’s brother. He has gone into a coma from shock after he discovered that his sister had been assaulted by his friends. The girl is dead. A massive cover-up operation has been launched by the school and the boys’ parents who are very influential. The media has been bribed and so this is not being reported.

Mind you, I am not saying that this incident actually took place. I am only reporting what is being narrated and is creating near panic in parents. Since it has been impossible to verify the incident, because no identifiable source is ever given of the story, one can only hope that this is one of the “urban legends”, which seem to crop up periodically. Remember, how it was being widely reported -–– by word of mouth only —– a few years ago how syringe throwing maniacs were trying to infect women with the HIV virus. When after investigating, I had written about the unlikelihood of the stories being true, readers heaved a big sigh of relief and soon forgot about the whole episode.

In this case, too, I tried very hard to get to the root of the story but failed. I have not met anyone so far who can tell me of a person who personally knows any of the people said to be involved ––- the rapists, their families, the victim and her family. Everyone who comes out with the story says she heard it from either a friend or from a stranger in a group. Even those who identify the person who narrated the story can go no further because the narrator ends up by giving a vague source. Nothing from the horse’s mouth.

The other strange feature is that broadly speaking the story line -–– if one may describe it as such ––- is the same but the details vary. For instance, sometimes the scene of the crime is a school (different elitist ones are mentioned), sometimes it is a college (again two institutions have been named). Hence the age of the children involved varies. Their numbers also change ––- though the victim is always one. We have been hearing about this for the past two months and yet it is always said “it happened last week”. The fate of the girl and the boy also differs in every version.

What is one to make out of this? Personally, I think until the veracity of this episode is established conclusively by someone who actually knows the families involved and allows some investigation, this should be taken as an urban legend.

What is this new phrase which has gained currency of late? In the good old days we just called a story that had no basis as a “rumour”. Today it is termed an urban legend. In fact a film of that name was produced in 1998.

The Wikipedia defines it as “supposedly-true stories circulated primarily by word of mouth” and, in recent years, “distributed by email”. People frequently say such tales happened to a friend of a friend — so often, in fact, that FOAF has become a commonly used acronym to describe how such reports are rarely first-hand”.

Although the Wikipedia claims that such reports are sometimes repeated in news stories, that is generally not the case in the responsible media because there is no reliable source for them.

What is significant about urban legends is that they are readily believed by people ––- quite sensible and rational otherwise ––- who unwittingly pass them on by voicing their concerns about them. Invariably these legends touch those aspects of our lives in respect of which there is widespread fear and an intense sense of insecurity at a given point in time.

And what are our (especially women’s) present concerns which the urban legends are preying on? If one analyzes the present story being narrated again and again by FOAF the general fears and insecurities are pretty obvious. In a nutshell they are: * Women, even young girls, are not safe in this society. The fear of rape lurks in every woman’s mind, conscious or subconscious. Those with daughters fear for them, too.

* Corruption has seeped into every strata of society and one can pay a bribe and get anything good or evil ––- even the moon, if the bribe is big enough.

* If one is powerful and influential enough, one can cover up the most heinous of crimes and keep it out of the media.

One woman who was narrating this incident, which we don’t know if it actually happened, even brought up the Sui rape case and the president’s defence of the army captain. She said this was a message to other men with evil intentions ––- go ahead, you will be protected.

The more serious cause of concern is that women should be feeling so vulnerable in Pakistan. It is this aspect of the situation which needs to be addressed.

Source: Dawn

Women’s struggle makes headway

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

March 8 is international women’s day. Over the years it has acquired a ritualistic symbolism – seminars, rallies, plays and other events to draw public attention to the deplorable status of women in Pakistan.

The cynics believe nothing comes out of all the rumpus that is created. They point to the dismal state of a majority of women in the country and ask, what have all the international women’s day celebrations done to better their lot?
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