By: Fauzia Viqar
November 25 was designated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in December 1999 by the UN General Assembly. It marks the death anniversary of the three Mirabel sisters assassinated in 1960 by the dictator Rafael Trujillo for their fight against Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Activists on women’s rights have observed a day against violence on the anniversary of the deaths of these three women since 1981.
Pakistan has cause to celebrate 25th November for recent legislative and other contributions to elimination of key forms of violence against women and positive steps taken for women’s empowerment nationally.
In 2011, Pakistan enacted 3 key pieces of pro women legislation on the prevention of anti women practices, on acid crimes-control and for prevention and the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act for destitute and incarcerated women.
On 8th March, 2012 the National Commission on the Status of Women Act was passed, to promote the social, economic, political and legal rights of women as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. Provinces began taking steps to increase women’s empowerment after devolution consequent to the passing of the 18th amendment.
Punjab undertook a comprehensive Women’s Empowerment Package that included mechanisms ranging from increased participation and representation of women, to ensuring their right to inheritance. KPK passed a similar law criminalizing denial of inheritance to women, while Sindh and Balochistan also introduced pro women bills in their assemblies, swept by the momentum generated nationally.
On October 30th 2012, when presenting Pakistan’s second Universal Periodic Review Report to the UN Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar proudly claimed applause for the steps Pakistan has taken to tackle discrimination and violence against women in the form of laws and reforms.
Unfortunately, however, despite Foreign Minister Khar’s assertions regarding Pakistan’s achievements on women’s rights and empowerment measures and despite some positive steps to ameliorate women’s condition, Pakistan continues to fall short of projections and promises.
Pakistan ranks 82nd out of 93 countries in the Gender Empowerment Measure (UNDP Human Development Report 2011) and has a Gender Inequality ranking of 115 out of 146 countries in the 2011 index. While the adult literacy rate in Pakistan is 56 percent, female literacy stands at 40 percent despite government’s commitment under the Millennium Development Goals of 87 percent women’s literacy by 2011 (World Bank Development Report 2012).
The recently published World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2012 benchmarks national gender gaps of 135 countries on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria. Pakistan declined from 131st in 2011 to 134th position in the global gender gap index in 2012.
National reports indicate an increase in physical, sexual and domestic violence, acid throwing, killings and rape since past year. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported a 13 percent increase in crimes against women since 2008 (from 7,571 in 2008 to 8,539 by December 2011). In the first six months of 2012 alone, a total of 4,585 cases of violence against women were reported in the media across Pakistan signifying a 7 percent increase over 2011 in the same time period. The actual numbers may be more since many cases go unreported.
These figures point to fundamental systemic and attitudinal issues that perpetuate violence against women in Pakistan resulting in lack of enjoyment of rights and entitlements by women as equal citizens. The source of these attitudes is often misconstrued notions of culture which are frequently confused with religion to confer power to men over decisions regarding the women in their families and in society.
Consequently, when a woman decides to exercise her rights conferred on her by the constitution as a citizen or by religion, she is declared rebellious and immoral. Here, notions of honour or “ghairat” are conveniently used for dishonourable purposes, including denial of the right to marry a person of one’s choice, denial of the right to education, denial of the right to inheritance or simply to be traded to settle family feuds in complete contravention of the laws of the country. A recent Jirga called by the Balochistan Assembly member, where 13 young girls were made wani in Dera Bugti is a reminder of the vulnerability of females and extent of the violence perpetrated in the name of tradition.
Unfortunately, the mindset that relegates women to a secondary status as human beings and as citizens is not specific to any geographical area, social or economic background. This mindset pervades across society.
When Sharmeen Chinoy’s documentary “Saving Face” won an Oscar in 2012, there was public outcry against her film’s contribution to the “negative portrayal” of Pakistan in the world. She was condemned and accused by the conservative so-called nationalist elements of buying into the Western agenda. They found her film an exaggerated depiction of the relatively inconsequential incidence of some women being burnt by their husbands in a few cases mainly because of dishonourable actions on the part of women themselves.
The reaction was particularly surprising and indicative of the regressive mindset because it came equally from moderate and supposedly liberal segments that profess to uphold human rights. The argument, though focused on inadvisability of “washing our dirty linen in public” revealed the general feeling that this issue had been blown out of proportion with the sole purpose of winning an award. This film for a large number of people maligned Pakistan’s image despite the many positive aspects of our society which are not shown because those don’t sell well.
While agreeing with the desirability of showing the many positive and constructive aspects of Pakistan, from the constitutional guarantees for protection and equality to women to the supportive family structures, it is hard to find many instances of systemic and institutional efficiency or examples where the rights of the weak in the face of might of the strong and the moneyed are upheld.
For the 150 women who suffered acid attacks at the hands of jealous, greedy and demanding husbands, and jilted lovers, there was no state-provided legal, medical or financial support to pursue justice, get rehabilitated and return to normal life.
Lack of adequate and properly equipped medical facilities added to the woes of victims of violence. In June 2012, a 16 year old, already mother of a two year old child was burnt by her husband in Sadiqabad because she couldn’t bring the money he demanded. This young girl who had suffered third degree burns had to be brought to Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad, all the way from her home at the border of Sindh and Punjab because of a lack of services close to her area.
At present, there are less than half a dozen burn-centres across Pakistan that can treat burn victims. District hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with serious burn cases. If we feel that bringing the plight of the poor, disfigured women who cannot afford treatment and are left crippled for life to light is a cheap tactic for raising money, we are dealing with a mindset that places little value on the life and rights of women.
If women are discouraged from leaving abusive relationship due to a lack of women’s shelters, or because these shelters where they exist are under resourced, over burdened and ill equipped to facilitate rehabilitation of women, it is indicative of the status of women in our society.
Domestic violence is a household phenomenon in most countries. In Pakistan it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent women have experienced domestic violence but do not report it due to societal stigma against revealing this phenomenon. What is different in our country is the normalisation of this form of violence and even encouragement in some areas where women consider physical abuse by the husband as a demonstration of his affection.
When legislation is proposed for prevention of domestic violence, legislators raise such a hue and cry that the matter is shelved indefinitely. Domestic violence Bill presented in April 2012 in the Parliament met with vocal resistance from religious parties who termed it unIslamic without explaining how it was unIslamic. JUI accused that this bill was Western agenda of foreign funded NGOs working against Islam that were trying to destroy our family system. They didn’t elaborate on how can protections to women in a household lead to destruction of family system?
In reality, providing protection to women in a household has the potential of shifting the balance of power in favour of women and that is utterly unacceptable to our male-dominated society.
The mark of civilisation is a state that defends the rights of the weak and vulnerable and holds the strong accountable for their actions. As early as 1895 it was understood that “The peoples furthest from civilisation are the ones where equality between man and woman are furthest apart — and we consider this one of the signs of savagery”- Notebook, 1895.
The plight of women victims and weak albeit absence of implementation of laws for crimes against women is one indicator that we are moving further away from civilisation. Unfortunately, despite the passage of welcome pro-women laws, there have been no successful convictions and perpetrators continue to inflict violence against women with impunity.
The sad part is not only a societal apathy towards the plight of the poor survivors but that people have imbibed twisted priorities and they not only consider safety and security of citizens of Pakistan unimportant enough not to hold the state accountable for attacks on them, but they actually condemn people who do bring the lives and misery of the wretched souls to light.
If we want Pakistan to progress, we will need to start looking at our values and our priorities objectively and question them honestly. We also need to place value on individual life and understand that the misery of each victim is unacceptable, and it should merit equal public outcry. Leo Tolstoy correctly pointed out in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
November 25 is marked as International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women