By: Syed Mohammad Ali
While sensationalist rankings such as the one by the Thomson Reuters Foundation — which listed Pakistan as the third most dangerous place for women in the world a couple of years ago — are easily dismissible, it is harder to refute the fact that the majority of women in our country continue to be subjected to different forms of perturbing violence. This state of affairs persists despite several laws having been formulated over the past five years.
Despite these apparent legislative attempts, however, there is little room for complacency. Aurat Foundation collated reports of over 7,500 reported cases of violence against women from all over Pakistan in 2012. Another recent study, conducted by the Rutgers World Population Foundation, reveals even more disturbing findings of abuse against women. This study was based on a survey conducted in Dera Ghazi Khan, Muzaffargarh, Jacobabad, Kashmore, Jafferabad and Naseerabad, which involved household-level interviews with around 5,000 women. The survey found three-fourths of the interviewed women to have experienced varying degrees of physical violence. Over half of them (64 per cent) claimed to have suffered injuries due to physical abuse, while 47 per cent of the women were subjected to physical abuse by their husbands during pregnancy as well. As many as 80 per cent of the women admitted to having suffered psychological abuse, including insulting behaviour or humiliation in front of others.
Our domestic violence legislation takes a fairly broad view of what is considered violence. It recognises physical violence, including sexual abuse and assault, but also other coercive acts such as stalking, economic abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, willful or negligent abandonment and wrongful confinement. Despite this being a fairly comprehensive list, the punitive aspects of this law are weak, especially since it aims to restrain rather than also punish offenders the first time a case is filed against them.
There are also problems in implementing the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act 2011. Despite prohibiting forced marriages, the above survey found that 77 per cent of marriages in the surveyed districts are still being settled under practices such as vani or swara, sang chatty or watta satta. The study even found a significant proportion of induced abortions, many of which were due to the fact that the fetus was female.
While it is clear that legislation by itself cannot change society’s attitude toward gender-based violence, it does not mean that laws to criminalise domestic violence or forced marriages are not needed. What is also required is an adequate level of support from a range of relevant institutions, including the police, healthcare providers and the lower courts to ensure that these laws for the protection of women can be adequately implemented. Changing men’s attitudes towards women also remains vital to overcome the existing environment. When the above-mentioned study interviewed men, it noticed that the majority of them defined manhood in terms of exerting control over women, based on notions of authority or honour. Such warped notions concerning gender roles must be altered.