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Violence against women

By Syed Mohammad Ali

Condescending attitudes lead only to provocation and hardening of stances. Inappropriate methods adopted to create awareness about rights can in fact alienate intended beneficiaries from their own families and the society. Even education and economic empowerment seem suspect goals if activists stress that poor or illiterate people are more prone to violence against women

We live in a conflict-ridden world, where the powerful exploit the weak and the weak take their anger out on whoever is more vulnerable than them. Women unfortunately face the brunt of this vicious cycle.

According to Amnesty International, up to a billion women have at some point of their lives been abused. UNFPA statistics rank Bangladeshi women as being the most battered in the world, estimating that 47 percent have suffered from different types of assault. Bangladesh is followed closely by India where 40 percent of women were assaulted. Western countries are not exempted – 29 percent of women in Canada were assaulted, followed by 22 percent in the United States.

The local press and NGOs in Pakistan report a few thousand cases of reported violence against women every year. While the actual incidence of such violence is difficult to estimate accurately, it does affect the lives of a significant proportion of our female population. The prevailing legal and policy environment is so impotent that President Pervez Musharraf had to directly intervene in two cases where a threat of ‘honour killing’ loomed. Those fighting to promote women’s rights in the country see the presidential move as part of a broader trend to prioritise women issues, particularly at the legislative level.

The provincial and national legislative assemblies are apparently trying to amend the existing anti-women laws and to adopt new legislation to curb violence against them. The Supreme Court has also empowered women to marry of their own free will, without the approval of parents or the legal guardian. The government is forming complaint cells in the Women Police Stations and crisis centres to provide free legal and medical aid to victims of the violence. Officials say that the devolution plan marks a watershed in terms of the political empowerment of women and that their economic empowerment will also increase significantly due to specific efforts like micro-credit schemes. Yet the real success of such measures will become evident based on results achieved by implementation on ground. The record of state machinery, which is ultimately responsible for preventing and investigating crime and punishing the perpetrators, hardly evokes a sense of confidence.

Government efforts to redress gender concerns in Pakistan, and other developing countries, are increasingly supported by multilateral agencies and by local and international civil society organisations. However, there are many ruptures in this seemingly encouraging collaborative trend. There are gaps in priorities of women organisations in industrialised nations and those in the developing world. Women organisations from the industrialised world fight bitter battles for gaining greater bodily rights, more recognition of their sexuality, and the right to follow their preferences. Women from conservative countries like Pakistan have not been able to lend whole-hearted support to movements so removed from their own circumstances.

Similarly, women organisations in developing countries get a lukewarm response when their concerns conflict with standard notions of development espoused by the industrialised world. Globalisation for example has exacerbated inequalities in many developing countries, including our own, and directly increased pressure on women to help make ends meet and simultaneously run the household. Women organisations based in industrialised countries often do not realise how economic and social pressures resulting from global restructuring are increasing tensions within households and disrupting domestic lives. It is more convenient for them to support the multilateral perspective focusing on the apparent problem not its causes by placing emphasis on behaviour change. At best, gender-based violence is described in terms of its sizeable impact on the economy, in terms of decreasing productivity and increasing healthcare and preventive costs. But this perspective does no more than reinforce the view that only if men in developing countries were less violent, there would be less poverty. Global inequalities and the resulting frustration and bitterness caused by it, seem much less easy to acknowledge and deal with.

Yet the holistic nature of development implies that linkages between socio-economic rights and personal rights cannot be ignored. Eliminating gender-based violence in a human rights framework offers a practical way to legitimise women’s rights both at the national and international level. Yet even the UN endorsed human rights framework is somewhat limiting in practice. The universalistic and predominantly legalistic approach of such a framework makes it difficult to contend with diverse cultural and societal norms that can be manipulated to justify violence.

In dealing with particular values espoused by different cultures, it is not necessary to adopt an anti-traditionalist stance. In Pakistan, for example, the traditional sense of honour or izzat can be used to uphold the dignity of women rather than trying to suppress the notion altogether, due to its negative connotations of loss of face, which becomes an excuse for killing ‘dishonourable’ women. Quranic injunctions can also be readily used to help fight violence against women. Let us not forget that Islam expressly abolished the entrenched custom of female infanticide and ensured the economic empowerment of women in the shape of Mehr, the right of contract and a share in inherited property. Conversely, sweeping statements claiming that our backward or feudalistic mindsets are prone to violence against women or that this kind of violence prevails mostly in the lower strata of our society are much too antagonistic. Such condescending attitudes must be overcome for they only lead to provocation and hardening of stances. Inappropriate methods adopted to create awareness among women about their rights can in fact alienate intended beneficiaries from their own families and the society to which they belong. Even education and economic empowerment seem like suspect goals if activists go out to a marginalised community and stress that poor or illiterate people are more prone to violence against women.

One is not challenging the fact that the taboo of violence against women needs to be broken. It is the manner in which this should be done that deserves more consideration. Greater sensitivity to local conditions and a more cohesive approach would help eradicate the disturbing problem.

The writer is a researcher with diverse experience in the development sector. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times