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Roots of women’s woes

The reminder by civil society organisations to the government of its responsibility to implement the two new laws designed to deal with sexual harassment has not come a day too soon. However, they will have to do much more before their efforts start bearing fruit.

These new laws are not the only targets of the government’s indifference to the implementation part of lawmaking; this attitude has become the rule over the past many years. But the consequences in this case are more serious than in the case of other laws because of the anti-women biases of the male-dominated administration.

The follow-up action requirements in the case of the first of the new laws which amends the Penal Code to provide for a better definition of sexual harassment and enhances punishment for it, are relatively simple. The task essentially involves making the police, prosecution agencies and the subordinate judiciary, on the one hand, and the public, especially women, on the other, aware not only of the change in the law but also the ideal of social progress underlying it.

The other law, devised to protect women against harassment at the workplace, demands much greater effort to ensure its implementation because it envisages a regime based on the employers’ willingness to voluntarily observe a code of conduct. The success of the measure depends on three factors: extensive dissemination of the law and the rationale behind it; trendsetting initiatives by government departments and corporations; and visible support by a properly informed citizenry.

None of these conditions has so far been adequately met. No meaningful public awareness campaign has been launched by the state, only a few government departments have adopted the code of conduct (this, one suspects, is due to some officials’ individual initiatives), and the masses have neither become aware of the new law nor have they been enabled to realise their role in its implementation. These matters should be high on the priority list of the decision-making elite if it has woken up to the historical wrongs that Pakistani society has been doing to its women.

Unfortunately, the growing incidence of violence against women, and sexual harassment is but one of the most demeaning forms of violence against them, indicates that our society is relishing ever new forms of regression. At a recent seminar organised by the National Police Academy the commandant of the institution declared that violence against women had reached an endemic level (if he made any reference to the police contribution to the situation the media did not catch it). Some of the recent incidents reported in newspapers make the situation clear:

– Some girl students were beaten up by male students on the campus of the International Islamic University for taking photographs.

– Law-enforcing personnel beat up women who were harvesting the wheat crop in a Sindh village.

– A poor maid was raped for five months by two teenagers in a middle-class house in Lahore.

– Women are killed by their husbands for failing to produce a male child or any child at all, for not allowing them (husbands) the facility of another wife, for not providing money to satisfy their husbands’ craving for drugs, or for not surrendering the property receivable as inheritance.

– Gone are the days when slave women were ravished only in feudals’ havelis. The rogue gallery now includes a lawyer, a businessman and quite a few members of the law-enforcement agencies.

– The law says no woman can be detained at a police station even for a night but a woman is kept at a police station right under the nose of the federal sarkar for days on end and raped by a whole battalion of ‘servants of the people’.

– Women are detained, without authority and without any record, at a safe house in the capital and a senior officer belonging to a defence service is accused of overseeing torture.– One NGO said crimes against women in 2009 were 13 per cent higher than in 2008 and another said the rate of increase was 27 per cent and everybody agreed that crime against women was certainly on the rise.

There is no need to search for any new factors that have contributed to a surge in violence against women in all its forms – harassment, battery, rape, denial of freedoms and mental trauma. True, brutalisation of society, the rise of religious extremists and growing impoverishment of the under-privileged have added to Pakistani women’s misery. But we must not persist in treating violence against women, which is a symptom, as the disease, which is denial of equal status to women.

Thus, while efforts to deal with violence against women must continue with redoubled zeal and under a more imaginatively planned strategy, the central causes of women’s exploitation – denial of economic independence and their due share in the power structure – must receive equal priority.

As important as figures of crime against women are statistics of non-utilisation of their economic potential and the petty returns on their labour. Women constitute barely one-fifth of the total of employed persons. Three-fourths of these women are employed in agriculture and in most cases their labour is not paid for. In the occupational group of legislators, senior officials and managers, according to one expert, women’s share is no higher than three per cent. The government claims to have raised women’s quota in public-sector jobs from five per cent to 10 per cent but out of the 700,000 employees in this sector women are said to number only 21,000 – three per cent of the total.

That giving more government jobs to women (though always welcome) will have only a marginal effect on their status cannot be denied. Also undeniable is the fact, now conceded by the prime minister himself, that Pakistan will not be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of the realisation of gender equality and empowerment of women.

Admission of failure is not enough. The real issue is what is being done to ensure that the women of Pakistan can enjoy equality of status with men. What is being done to guarantee women their right to gainful work, and to equal wages? What is being done to guarantee women their right to control their productive and reproductive roles? What is being done to eliminate the disparity in male-female literacy and school enrolment, especially now that education has been recognised as a fundamental right? What is being done to secure women’s release from the stifling stranglehold of the mandarins who abuse the scriptures to perpetuate the tribal male’s tyranny?

It is time those in authority invited civil society for a frank discussion on the root causes of women’s woes and devised a strategy for moving towards gender equality.

Source: Dawn