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Gender violence: No sanctuary is safe enough for women

By: Huma Choudhary

ISLAMABAD: Behind Zahrah’s* dimpled smile is a decade of torment and a hurting heart. Before she had suffered at his hands, she could never have imagined that her husband, an honour student from one of the world’s top ten medical schools, would turn out to be a wife beater. He would beat her ruthlessly and burn different parts of her body with cigarette butts for not obeying his orders.

A home is a sanctuary where one feels the safest. But for women like Zahrah, life at home is a threat to their well-being and sanity. Zahrah never filed a case or lodged an FIR against her husband, and continues to live with the scars of domestic violence.

According to a 2013 global review by UN Women, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence. However, some national violence studies show that numbers in Pakistan may go up to 70 per cent of women having experienced some form of violence.

The same study states that women in urban areas are twice as likely as men to experience violence, particularly in developing countries. Educated, urban women like Zahrah are the silent sufferers, and violence that the country’s seemingly empowered women suffer is one of the country’s best kept secrets. Physical, sexual and psychological violence strikes women worldwide. It crosses every social and economic class, religion, race and ethnicity. From domestic abuse to rape as a weapon of war, violence against women is a gross violation of human rights.

“The government has not fulfilled its promise towards women and girls who are victims of acid burns,” said Valerie Khan, chairperson of The Acid Survivors Foundation.

According to her, Pakistani women are waiting for the comprehensive Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2014 to be passed in all the country’s provinces.

According to official statistics, there were 860 ‘honour’ killings (mostly women), 481 incidents of domestic violence, 90 cases of acid burning, 344 cases of rape/gang rape, and 268 incidents of sexual assault/harassment in Pakistan last year. Fifty-six women were killed for giving birth to a girl rather than a boy.

“It is important to address some of the loopholes in the Anti-Women Practices Act 2011, which focuses on issues such as forced and early marriages and customs like Swara and Watta Satta,” said Rabeea Hadi, director advocacy, Aurat Foundation, while talking to The Express Tribune. “More efforts need to be made to raise awareness in order to bring the movement to end violence against women into the mainstream,” she said.

It is cause for concern that there seems to be a rise in the incidences of violence against women. To cite an example, data compiled by the Aurat Foundation revealed that cases of reported violence against women in the province of Punjab rose by 28 per cent in the first half of 2014 compared to last year’s figures. The data showed that 3,296 cases of violence against women had been reported in the Punjab in the first six months of the year. In comparison, 2,575 instances were reported in the first half of 2013.

Though violence is preventable, no silver bullet will eliminate it. What is required is a systematic set of efforts in areas such as education and awareness, enforcement of laws and economic empowerment of women. There needs to be a shift in mindset at first, where abusive behaviour towards women must be viewed as unacceptable.

Experts reiterate that men must be engaged in the process as agents of change to end violence against women. “Couples come to me for counselling, and the men acknowledge being guilty of domestic violence against their wives,” said Dr Farah Qadir, a practicing psychologist and head of the Department on Behavioral Sciences at Fatima Jinnah University. Therapy has helped many of them overcome this issue and lead a happy life, she added.

Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, commences the global campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, to put a stop to the violation of women’s human rights that affects at least 1 in 3 women worldwide. The UN secretary-general’s Unite to End Violence against Women, managed by UN Women, has proclaimed November 25th as “Orange Day” this year. The 16 Days of Activism end on December 10.

• Name has been changed to protect identity

Express Tribune