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How terrible is it to be born a girl?

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on CNN.com, May 30, 2014

How terrible is it to be born a girl in the world today? The almost daily headlines about another cruel act of violence and discrimination against women — from the kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls in Nigeria last month, to the latest gruesome stoning of a woman in Pakistan — provide plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about women’s equality and safety in today’s world.

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Is Religion Good for Women?

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on Tony Blair Faith Foundation, March 5, 2013

Around the world, and throughout history, religion has had a strong impact on the rights and status of women. Religious arguments have often been used to restrict women’s rights and actions, to maintain women as subservient to men, and at times to reinforce and justify harmful cultural practices. But religion has also been a force for positive change. Recognizing its moral influence and role as cultural touchstone, reformers have long turned to religious arguments to generate support – among men and women – for an expansion of female educational, social, economic, and political opportunities. Religion can both impede change, and facilitate it. (more…)

Malala Yousafzai and Girls’ Education in Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, February 5, 2013

Yesterday, people around the world watched in admiration and awe a clip from an interview with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for girls’ education. “I want every girl, every child to be educated,” she said bravely in comments given before she had surgery at a hospital in England–apparently, she is now recovering well–and discussed the new Malala Fund to do just that. The fund’s inaugural grant will help girls from the Swat Valley, where Malala is from, receive an education instead of entering the workforce prematurely. (more…)

Remarkable Women of 2012

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, December 20, 2012

Among the many compelling stories of 2012 have been those of remarkable women fighting for rights and opportunities—for themselves, their communities, and their countries. In this post I highlight several such women and their courageous struggles.

1. Malala Yousafzai and Sakena Yacoobi

Malala Yousafzai is the 15-year-old Pakistani student who inspired headlines around the world when she survived a Taliban assassination attempt in October. The reason for the attack? Malala’s advocacy of girls’ education. Now recovering from her injuries in the United Kingdom, Malala has become an international figure. Time made her runner-up for its Person of the Year. As the magazine wrote, the Taliban “wanted to silence her. Instead, they amplified her voice.” The question is how she will wield her formidable power in the future—in particular, whether she will try to return to Pakistan or exercise influence from abroad. Although the government recently launched a “Malala Fund for Girls” in conjunction with the UN, the fatwa against her announced last month by Pakistani extremists shows the danger she continues to face. She and her family will need to weigh carefully how they can stay safe while still making a difference for girls and women in Pakistan and around the world. (more…)

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, September 6, 2012

Tracking blasphemy cases in Pakistan is a good proxy for measuring the ebb and flow of extremism–and it’s not a pretty picture these days. The latest case to roil the waters involves a young girl from Pakistan’s Christian minority who was discovered last month with burned pages of religious texts among her belongings. (Her accusers said the pages came from the Koran, although this story has since come under scrutiny.) A mob gathered, calling for her arrest, and she was taken into police custody and charged with blasphemy, an offense that can carry the death penalty. What makes this situation even more egregious than the usual sentenced-to-death-for insulting-Islam case is that while reports of the girl’s exact age vary, she seems to be around 14 years old and has a developmental disability.

The girl in question, Rimsha Masih, is still in custody. Many of the area’s Christians have fled, fearing for their homes and lives. If history is any indication, there is good reason to believe that an angry mob or a murderous vigilante poses at least as much danger to the girl as does the legal system–no one convicted under the blasphemy laws has actually been executed. But in 2010, as two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet left court, gunmen shot them both dead. In 2011, liberal governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard for his advocacy against the blasphemy laws; Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by Taliban militants for the same reason. (more…)

Saving Face: Film and Society in Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, February 28, 2012

In a feel-good moment for Pakistan, a native daughter won an Academy Award on Sunday – a first for the country. Sharmin Obaid-Chinoy, 33, took home the Oscar, along with her co-director, Daniel Junge, for their documentary “Saving Face.” The film tracks the heroic work of a British plastic surgeon, Dr. Muhammad Jawad, who tries to rebuild the faces, and lives, of Pakistani women who have been terribly disfigured by an acid attack. Every year in Pakistan, about 100 cases of acid attacks are reported to the police, but many more go unreported. These are usually intimate crimes, perpetrated by family members, often vindictive husbands, but also disgruntled mother-in-laws. The victims tend to be young women who have displeased in some way – perhaps producing a daughter instead of a son; or not doing the mother-in-law’s bidding. Some die, but many are left with horrific deformities that often render them blind, unable to eat or to carry on a normal life. (more…)

“Vigilauntie” Reveals Deepening Tensions Between Liberals and Conservatives in Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, February 2, 2012

In media markets around the world, liberals and conservatives are duking out their positions – often in increasingly vitriolic terms (the U.S. is a case in point.) Pakistan’s media is increasingly coming to look like the front line in their protracted battle between liberals and conservatives, too often with dangerous consequences. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, being a Pakistani journalist has become increasingly dangerous, especially for those reporting on the touchy subjects of politics and war. The number of Pakistani journalists killed for their reporting has quadrupled in recent years. In one high profile case last summer, Syed Saleem Shahzad was killed after investigating a story on links between the Pakistan military and Al Qaeda. Just this month, Mukarram Khan Atif, a freelance reporter who sometimes worked with the Pashto service of Voice of America was killed – this time by the Taliban. (more…)

Extremism and Democracy in Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, November 15, 2011

Earlier this month, Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, visited the Council on Foreign Relations in a bid to burnish his image in advance of his intended re-entry into politics next year. Last week, I hosted Dr. Asma Jahangir, a remarkably courageous lawyer and activist, the recent president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, a relentless critic of Musharraf, and a stalwart champion of democracy in her country. The back-to-back meetings made for quite a contrast.

Dr. Jahangir, who lives in Lahore, was in New York to receive the prestigious Leo Nevas Human Rights Award from the UN Association of the United States. During her acceptance speech, she humbly demurred, saying that while she has devoted much of her life to airing human rights grievances, especially in Pakistan, she has not done enough to improve the dismal situation of human rights around the world. For decades, however, Dr. Jahangir has more than done her bit to defend the rights of religious minorities, women and children, and political prisoners. In the 1980s, she campaigned against the religious laws imposed by General Zia Ul Haq in his efforts to Islamize Pakistani society. In the 1990s, she took on several high-profile cases dealing with blasphemy and honor crimes, and during the past decade, she has tirelessly campaigned for a return to democracy. (more…)

Making Aid Work

On April 8, 2009, Jayshree Bajoria from CFR.org interviewed Isobel Coleman and Charles North on U.S. aid to Pakistan.

The new U.S. strategy to fight extremism in Pakistan recommends increasing development and economic assistance to the region. Since 2002, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the principal agency for disbursing U.S. development aid abroad, has been ramping up its program in Pakistan. For the last few years its annual spending in Pakistan has been $400 million; this year’s budget is $590 million. USAID’s deputy director for the region, Charles North, says education and health care are, and will continue to be, the top development priorities in Pakistan. As this Backgrounder points out, Pakistan spends only about 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on education and 0.5 percent of GDP on health, resulting in notably low human development indicators.

But Isobel Coleman, CFR’s senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy, says she sees the government in Islamabad as “largely dysfunctional” and is skeptical that it would prove to be an effective partner, which is “critical if these programs are to be successful.”

Coleman also points out that aid delivery needs to be reformed, which will require better partnerships with local communities. Currently, as North points out, USAID is required to maintain high standards of financial accountability that make it difficult for it to work with local NGOs. “So often we need to work through international organizations that provide that kind of accounting for their resources,” he says. But experts say this system of using contractors results in high overhead costs and large amounts of money being channeled back to donor countries. Coleman recommends that the U.S. Congress ease up on some of the accounting requirements. “It has to over time be able to get comfortable with losing money,” she says.

Listen to the interview below:

[ti_audio media=”641″ volume=”75″]

Roll Back the Darkness in a Sustainable, Cost-Effective Way

by Rep. Steve Israel & Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post, July 13, 2009
Imagine a U.S. development program that can dramatically improve global health -- even saving 4,000 lives a day. It can significantly reduce violence against women. It can help combat the effects of climate change. It can enable millions of poor girls to attend school. It can help the world's poorest save and earn more money. And these results can be achieved with relatively small amounts of money in some of the most unstable places like Pakistan and Somalia, where results are most needed.
Imagine a U.S. development program that can dramatically improve global health -- even saving 4,000 lives a day. It can significantly reduce violence against women. It can help combat the effects of climate change. It can enable millions of poor girls to attend school. It can help the world's poorest save and earn more money. And these results can be achieved with relatively small amounts of money in some of the most unstable places like Pakistan and Somalia, where results are most needed.

We are talking about deploying small-scale solar devices through microfinance projects designed to empower woman as small business leaders. Funding solar villages can help meet the basic energy needs of the more than 3 billion people in the world with no reliable access to electricity and be one of the highest returns on investment for U.S. development assistance.

Every day, tens of thousands of people are burned by kerosene lamps. Not only are these lamps dangerous and dirty, they are expensive and provide poor lighting, which destroys eyesight. Solar-powered lanterns can replace the kerosene that billions of poor families rely on to light their homes. Most importantly, solar-powered lanterns and the hours of light they provide bring hours of increased safety and security for communities in dangerous areas. LED lanterns can even double as chargers to power up electrical devices. In terms of cost-effectiveness, an LED lantern pays for itself in less than a year.

Just a few years ago in rural India, a small group of women transformed their lives and their village with a small stock of solar lanterns. The housewives-turned-entrepreneurs sold solar and other renewable energy products; their main income generator was portable solar lamp rentals, which provided eight hours of light to families who rented the lanterns. The women turned a profit, improved their village, and demonstrated the demand for these devices in remote areas. Their success was made possible with a small grant from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab located in Colorado.

This is exactly the type of smart program we need to help recreate around the developing world. Other solar devices, such as solar cookers, can reduce the devastating environmental impact of chopping down trees to provide fuel for fires. The resulting deforestation leads to severe flooding and ruined soil quality. Leading climate scientists also contend that black soot from cooking stoves across the developing world is contributing as much as 18% of the planet’s warming. The dangerous toxins from the cookers also cause respiratory illnesses which lead to 1.6 million deaths each year — more than the number who die annually from malaria. Solar devices can be a cost-effective way to slow global warming and save lives. And we’re giving people sustainable ways to improve their own lives, by owning businesses that create wealth. (more…)