Fragmented policies against domestic violence, patriarchal household dynamics and harmful perceptions about gender roles leave women in Pakistan at risk of aggressive behaviour from men close to them, according to a new regional study whose findings were discussed by human rights activists, lawyers and researchers at a two- day seminar at the Aga Khan University on Friday.
The study, titled “Intimate Partner Violence and Men in South Asia: From Research to Action”, explores the individual, family and community drivers of violence in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal and proposes policy interventions that would protect women in these three South Asian nations.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is when physical abuse is committed against a person by those close to them such as spouses, partners and relatives. The report has found that conservative social norms about women’s rights are a common problem in all three countries. But it also points out that Pakistan has a range of social groups propagating views that condone violence against women and also has “highly fragmented” social and legislative protection for women.
Speaking about the relevance of the study’s findings, Dr Fiona Samuels, senior research fellow at London-based Overseas Development Institute, said: “Intimate partner violence (IPV) in South Asia is a major public health and human rights issue, situated in a wider context of very high levels of gender inequality.
“Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan rank 111th, 108th and 121st respectively out of 152 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index. We encourage public and private stakeholders in these three countries to take the findings seriously and to assess how these insights can be incorporated into policies and specific programmes.”
Commenting on the need for such a study in Pakistan, Dr Nargis Asad, associate professor in psychiatry at AKU and chair of the University’s Working Group for Women, said: “There is a great deal of evidence of the harm that IPV causes to women’s health, peace of mind and the prospects of their children, but there is little analysis on why men and boys turn violent against women.
“This study evaluates how the ideas of Pakistan’s adolescent boys and young men as well as the institutions and interest groups in our society are leaving women vulnerable. Understanding the reasons behind this violence is essential to protecting women and to ensuring that they are treated as equals.”
To understand the factors leading to male violence against women, researchers from the AKU conducted in-depth interviews and focus group meetings with men, boys and survivors of violence in three cities of Karachi (Lyari, Shah Faisal Town and Deh Chohar). Leading figures in the health and education sectors as well as officials in the police and social affairs departments were also consulted to analyse how to improve the effectiveness of policies to curb IPV.
At the individual level, researchers found that several participants described violence against women as being “extremely common” with abuse being a result of jealousy, suspicion or men taking offence to a woman not “listening” to them.
Researchers added that being exposed to norms that accepted male dominance or violence made young men nearly five times as likely to justify IPV. They also noted that a son was also more likely to be violent against women if he saw his father beating his mother.
Factors such as poverty, substance abuse and a lack of education were also found to increase the likelihood of men being violent against women.
Besides addressing structural triggers such as lack of education and jobs, researchers recommended engaging with adolescents at an early age through youth groups and school-based activities where they are more likely to be receptive to pro-social messages.
They also noted that community theatre and workshops in the community had a positive impact on changing norms among men but noted that women were often not allowed to attend support groups in their neighbourhood.
Within families, researchers found that marital conflict tied to a woman’s perceived role in maintaining the household and the expectation of following decisions made by men led to many incidents of violence.
Worryingly, many of the men interviewed described violence as being necessary to “control” women and cited various interpretations of religion to justify their actions.
The study also noted that family members often worsen tensions in the household by taking sides against the woman who is expected to obey her husband. To address these problems, researchers called for targeted programmes designed to make husbands, fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law reflect on their behaviour and to expose them to alternative forms of masculinity.
At the community level, the study found that incidents of IPV were seen as a private matter to be settled within families and noted that approaching the police or courts was seen to be unacceptable. Practices such as early marriages, disapproval of relationships before marriage and beliefs limiting the mobility and career choices of women all made IPV more likely.
To help tackle the problem, researchers called for awareness activities about IPV to be conducted through health clinics, community activists and women’s networks that would challenge existing norms in communities.
Finally, experts at the seminar noted that there were 12 specific laws related to the protection of women. However, they pointed out that these policies were poorly implemented with each province differing in their approach to the laws. Besides initiatives to bring Pakistan in line with international conventions, they called for further steps to criminalise IPV such as marital rape and dowry-related violence.
Experts also stated that women face questions over their character when they approach the police to report violence against them and often report obstacles tied to corrupt practices.
The study recommends having more female police officers and judges as well as enhanced sensitivity training among law enforcement staff to expand women’s access to the justice system.
The founding director of the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health at the Aga Khan University, Dr Zulfiqar A Bhutta, said: “Initiatives to improve the standing of women and to reduce violence in society are in line with targets under Goals 5, 10 and 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Research and initiatives to protect women will enhance gender equality, tackle the root causes of inequality, and promote peace and justice. These are the key foundations for strong institutions and an egalitarian society; ideals that we all aspire for in Pakistan.”
The seminar was organised by the AKU’s Working Group for Women and the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health in partnership with the London-based Overseas Development Institute, the Nepal Institute For Social and Environmental Research, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, USA, and UK Aid.