President Asif Ali Zardari put his signature on Friday to “One Million Signatures” campaign to end violence against women, sending out the message that abuses and discriminatory practices against women must stop. As he pointed out, discrimination against women is deeply rooted in all spheres of society: social, political, economic and legal. Contrary to the general belief, gender prejudices are entrenched more firmly among the rich and powerful ruling classes than among the poor.
To quote just two instances, when in 2008 two women were buried alive in Balochistan because the younger one wanted to contract a marriage of choice and the older relative supported her, a legislator from the province and then a member of the federal cabinet, Mir Israr Ullah Zehri, had defended the brutality saying “these are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them.” Earlier, at the time General Musharraf’s government introduced a bill aimed at exercising harsh punishment for the so-called ‘honour killings’ some of the otherwise respected legislators exhibited open reluctance to support it. The mindset being what it is, even small acts on the President’s part, such as participation in a campaign against subjecting women to violence, can help counter anti-women prejudices and the violence they generate.
Credit is due also to the PPP government for undertaking expansive pro-women legislation. These include protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010; Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act, 2011; Acid Control and Acid Crime Act, 2011; and Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act, 2011. Speaking at the signature ceremony, President Zardari also disclosed his plan, as part of a women’s empowerment initiative, to give representation to women in the higher judiciary. That would be an important symbolic gesture. Such symbolic measures place an extra responsibility on the government, however. Affirmative action appointees must be chosen on the basis of merit rather than favouritism of one sort or another. For, lack of competence in these cases tends to lend itself to generalizations about gender aptitude instead of being seen as an individual’s inaptitude. Badly handled appointments can easily end up producing a result opposite to the one desired.
All of the preceding measures are important, but these alone will not change social attitudes. It ought to be recognised that a lot of the social prejudices and resultant violence are rooted in economics. For instance, the law forbids dowry beyond a certain limit, yet there have been a number of cases of stove burning of brides by greedy in-laws. It is, therefore, imperative that the government should focus more on a general uplift of women than on symbolic appointments. Education together with vocational training with a view to promoting economic self-reliance is the key to women’s empowerment.