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Violence against women –Syed Mohammad Ali

There is an urgent need for increased provision of a whole range of support services for victims of violence. Women suffering from violence often have nowhere to turn. There is nearly not enough state or privately run women’s shelters

Violence against women remains a serious problem in Pakistan. In one form or another, violence is feared to occur in the major proportion of households across the country. According to some statistics, a Pakistani woman is raped every two hours. Despite the existence of such disturbing trends, however, discriminatory laws combined with gender biased customary practices allow various forms of violence to continue plaguing our society. Institutional neglect has made it virtually impossible for the victims of violence to seek either justice or relief. This article will aim to shed light on some lingering barriers which have prevented curbing violence against women in our country.

Organisations working with rape victims have pointed out a range of deterrents including social stigma, economic dependency, and unawareness concerning their basic rights, which compel most raped girls and women to remain silent about what has happened to them.

There has also not been much legal protection available to rape victims in Pakistan. The Hudood Ordinances, promulgated in 1979, had made it nearly impossible for victims of marital rape to seek justice. In fact, a rape victim herself could be liable for punishment if she remained unable to adequately prove her case in accordance to quite stringent parameters, in effect providing the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator instead of the victims. Besides an unsympathetic judiciary, even medical doctors have been found to lack forensic competence to handle evidence needed for rape prosecutions, which has led to a convoluted focus on the virginity status and sexual history of the rape victim.

Besides the rape of women, murdering them on the basis of customs referred to as “karo kuri” or honour killings are still not uncommon today, whereby male relatives kill their own sisters, daughters, or other female family members to avenge the shame of a supposedly illicit relationship.

Social institutions such as jirgas, faislas or panchayats have often been known to sanction these acts of violence across different rural areas. Moreover there is evidence of honour crimes spreading to larger towns and cities from the traditional rural heartlands over the past decade. While honour killings are considered as an act of murder under the Pakistan Penal Code, the family of the victim is legally allowed to seek a compromise with the murderer. Resultantly, only a dismal five percent of abusive husbands and family members are ever convicted according to women rights organisations.

Moreover, the police are generally considered reluctant to investigate cases of domestic violence, unless media or civil society succeeds in publicising a given case. The lack of specific legislation against domestic violence enables the police to easily dismiss complaints of physical or sexual violence, particularly if the perpetrator manages to bribe or exert influence on them.

Besides honour killings and rape, there are also other forms of grotesque gender-oriented violence such as acid burnings which rarely kill but result in serious disfigurement. Although women rights advocates have protested the open sale of acid, it is still easily available. There is also evidence of “stove deaths” occurring due to different reasons including failure to give birth to a son, disobedience, or allegations of adultery.

There is an urgent need for increased provision of a whole range of support services for victims of violence. Women suffering from violence often have nowhere to turn. There is nearly not enough state or privately run women’s shelters. State-run shelters have stringent rules such as requiring a woman who enters them to obtain a court order in order to leave. Privately-run shelters, on the other hand, are not only subject to varying standards of quality, but can also become easy targets of fundamentalist wrath based on the accusation of misguiding women.

Women activists fighting to promote respect for women’s human rights are coming under attack with increasing frequency, particularly in the northern parts of the country. Numerous incidences to this effect were reported by personnel aiming to improve women empowerment through improved literacy and livelihood provision schemes during the earthquake rehabilitation effort. The growing Talibanisation of the northern areas is also fuelling stringent opposition to female empowerment. Women leaders ranging from prominent human rights lawyers to elected village representatives face threats of assault. Last year, the provincial minister for social welfare was shot dead in Gujranwala. In order to effectively fight violence and other human rights abuses against women in Pakistan, this intimidation of women’s rights advocates must end.

While more women have been able to participate in the public sphere due to legislative reforms undertaken by the current government, these women representatives continue facing discrimination due to which they have not done much to alter traditional subservient gender roles. In some parts of the country, seats reserved for females remained vacant and also voting for female representatives was not allowed.

Yet there is evidence of some subsequent legislative actions to improve the status of women. The Standing Committee on Cabinet Affairs has recently recommended amending the definition of ‘misconduct’ in the removal from service ordinance to include the notion of gender harassment at the workplace. The real test of this measure will however become evident during its actual implementation.

Another more prominent attempt was undertaken in passing a women’s protection bill last year. However this bill was passed in a rather dilute form, due to which it has not been able to make a discernable impact in effect. In Sindh, for example, nearly four hundred women and girls were killed until the end of October this year, according to statistics complied by the Aurat Foundation. On the pretext of karo-kari alone, 183 of these women had been murdered in many districts of Sindh, condoned by illegal jirgas, despite a ban imposed on them by the Sukkur bench of the Sindh High Court.

Unfortunately there is still a long way to go before there can be a palatable decrease in violence against women in Pakistan. At least the means by which this discernable change can occur about should be obvious to everyone by now instead of only those who are actively fighting for women rights.

Source: Daily Times

Date:11/27/2007

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