The year 2021 has been an incredibly hard year for many, as we trudged on through another year of the pandemic. While we were struggling for semblance of normalcy, there were still many issues amplified especially in the case of women and children due to the lockdowns. Like many other countries, Pakistan experienced a spike in different crimes especially crimes against women.
However, in 2021, several important laws were passed. Some of the laws were women centric like ‘The Enforcement of Women's Property Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2021’; ‘The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2021’; ‘The Enforcement of Women's Property Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2021’; ‘The Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trail) Bill, 2021’; and ‘The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2021’.
Despite the passing of the laws, the year was marred with some gruesome crimes which were reported in the media, such as the murder of Noor Mukadam in July, 2021. More cases of abuse and sexual abuse against women and girls were also being reported by social media and traditional media. Along with this, other discriminatory acts such as early marriages; young girls being married to older men; girls being given off as compensation who got lost and weren’t reported in the media, were some crimes that were also on the rise. So many young girls lost forever and no one knows… and no one cares.
To get an insight on the yesteryear and how it was for women, this week You! spoke to three strong and vocal human rights activists regarding the deterioration of human rights and increase in violent crimes against women. They all seem to have reservations regarding the situation improving on ground any time soon.
“The year 2021 has been a year of mixed baggage. We started under the shadow of a global pandemic. Covid-19 was very much there and so were the sufferings,” says Tasneem Ahmar, Journalist and Director, Uks Research Centre. “The cases of infected and dead were there but what had not made big headlines (it still hasn’t despite many reports that have surfaced) was how the pandemic had hit women everywhere, as in Pakistan.”
Tasneem’s expertise include advocacy on gender equity, women and human rights, political rights, health, violence against women, and gender sensitisation in the media. Ahmar established Uks which is a research, resource and publication centre. Uks is dedicated to the cause of gender equality and women's development.
Highlighting how many domestic abuse victims and the abusers were forced to stay in closed parameters due to the lockdown, Ahmar informs, “Domestic violence went up dangerously as there were many enabling factors ranging from work-from-home for some, no work and no earnings for many, no schools, and being caged-in within the home with the abusers.”
She further adds that according to a Human Rights Watch news report, data collected from domestic violence hotlines across the country showed a 200 per cent increase in domestic violence between January and March last year. The numbers were even worse after March, when Covid-19 lockdowns began.
There were many harrowing incidents of violence against women. From the brutal murder of Noor Mukadam to the murder of a pregnant woman just two days before she was going to give birth to a baby girl – her third daughter. There were also a number of murders in the name of ‘honour’; there were girl-child being married off and there were forced marriages. The last in this long list of which I have only presented a glimpse, is the video that went crazily viral of four Pakistan women - being accused of stealing - were beaten, assaulted and paraded naked by the Faisalabad mob.
“Though the whole incident suddenly went off the media radar as too many ‘controversies’ surfaced suggesting that the whole incident was a ‘deliberate’, 'self-inflicted’ and ‘planned’ incident. The allegations that these women had actually misused ‘aurat card’ was also flashed on social media. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that there were men who made the video and made it go viral. Even if these women were thieves, had staged everything, nobody had the right to share their videos with the world, just as a commercial sex worker cannot be raped,” highlights Tasneem.
In the same vein, Mahnaz Rahman, Resident Director of Aurat Foundation, agrees, “We witnessed many heinous incidents of violence against women in 2021. The Noor Mukadam case shook the whole nation; two sisters were killed in Peshawar; what happened to a Tik-toker in Lahore was also shameful. Quratulain of Sindh was murdered by her husband, Nazeeran of Shahdad Kot by her brother-in-law to name a few. Many other cases of murder and rape took place in 2021.”
As far as the bills and laws are concerned, Tasneem shares, “A number of bills favouring women were passed, such as the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Bill, the Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights (Amendment), the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) and the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Bill.”
Reviewing the year 2021 as the state of women and girls in Pakistan and the laws that were passed this year, Tahira Abdullah, Human Rights Defender, doesn’t think anything has really been done to provide protection to women and girls. “On the one hand there was an absence of progressive legislation, with the Domestic Violence Bill still not enacted by the federal legislature, despite its existence – in varying degrees – in the provinces. On the other hand, a retrogressive and redundant Rape (amendment) law was enacted, after initially being promulgated via Presidential Ordinance. This is an entirely unnecessary law, as there are already several laws pertaining to rape – the most recent one was enacted in 2016. The 2021 law is mostly a repetition of the 2016 law, along with the addition of chemical castration for convicted rapists – drawing huge flak from human rights defenders and experts in law and psychiatry.”
On the situation analysis of Pakistani women, she comments, “Overall, Pakistani women were more adversely impacted than men by Covid-19, observed an increased gender-based violence (GBV), especially rape/gangrape, dishonour killings, online and in-person sexual harassment.”
Apart from the crimes, there were many basic amenities that many women were deprived of. “There was increased feminisation of poverty, food inflation, hunger and unemployment; decreased access to primary and reproductive health rights and services; lack of access to justice, education, skills enhancement, information and IT/internet, especially for rural women and girls,” adds Tahira.
Commenting about the role of the governments in 2021 for women rights, Mahnaz says.
“The Federal Government and Sindh Government continued to help women through Ehsas and Benazir Income Support Program but civil society demands comprehensive and universal social security for all citizens. The Sindh Government raised the minimum wage to Rs25,000 - which was a good step.”
Mahnaz Rahman is a feminist and activist who has worked extensively for women’s rights for decades. Mahnaz has written extensively on women issues and other socio-political issues as a working journalist from 1973 to 1993. Rahman highlights another important case that has been dragged on for years. “For women right activists, the most depressing news was the second time acquittal of three accused of the Mazar gang rape case that took place 13 years ago. The woman had come from Lodhran to visit Quaid’s Mazar on 16 March, 2008. They (the girl and her husband) were waiting for other relatives at the gate and the husband was asked by the guard to go and buy the tickets. When he came back the wife had disappeared but her sandals were lying there.”
“DNA report confirmed that Khadim Husain, an ex-security guard, accountant Raja Arif and assistant engineer Arif Ansar were involved in the crime. The session court released them in April 2013. The woman went to the High Court and the case was sent to the trial court in May 2021 but the session judge rejected the DNA report and again acquitted the three accused.”
Tahira Abdullah also talks about the new single national curriculum and how it is affecting women and girls, “Mandatory imposition of the “Single National Curriculum” (sic) during 2021 was blatantly mala fide, theocratic, anti-women and girls, anti-religious minorities. The accompanying textbooks provide ample proof. Women continue to face absence of assets ownership and credit-worthiness. The Glass Ceiling remains visibly alive and well in the upper echelons of public and private employment, with the current government setting a shameful example of women’s invisibilisation, nepotism and politicisation of senior government positions. Women continue to be ghettoised and marginalised into the traditional zanana dabba in most sectors.”
In addition, the coronavirus pandemic added to existing crimes against women and girls, and led to the country seeing some horrific cases. “2021 saw a double epidemic in Pakistan: COVID-19 and femicide – the most brutal demonstration of which was the barbaric, gruesome torture and killing of Noor Mukadam in Islamabad,” laments Tahira. “The palpable rise in violent extremist politics, mandated ritualistic religiosity and theocracy, along with drastic curbs on the print and electronic media’s freedom of expression has had a negative fallout for women in both Afghanistan and Pakistan – with no diminution in sight.”
Speaking about the New Year 2022, Tahira is not very hopeful about the situation on ground, especially the attitude of the male political leaders when it comes to violence against women and girls. “That’s a no-brainer. There is no case for optimism during 2022, the last full year of the PTI federal, Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab governments, whose leader has a track record of being intensely sexist – in fact, misogynist. With such a mindset, we can expect more of the same anti-women statements – resulting in mala fide laws, policies, institutions, i.e. a continuing lack of progress for Pakistani women.”
But all was not bad in 2021. “Saima, the first blind diplomat of Pakistan, presented the case of Kashmir in UNO. Zara Naeem took first position in the international Chartered accountancy examinations Chitral’s Dr Zubaida’s book about eye problems was included in the international list of prominent books,” mentions Mahnaz.
Similarly, Tasneem shares, “All was not gloom and doom. Women kept up with their struggle, despite Covid-19 still being around, women took up the challenges of dealing with it and going ahead with their lives. They continued to protest against inequality, be it through the Aurat March or demonstrations against VAW. This list (of laws) gives us hope that 2022 may be a better year for women, what is urgently required though is being more proactive than reactive and going for permanent solutions for prevention of VAW/G rather than ad-hoc measures.”
It is hoped that this year fares better for women in Pakistan and real steps are taken to ensure women and girls are protected from crimes.
* The Enforcement of Women's Property Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2021: An Act to protect and secure the rights of ownership of women in the property. It is expedient to provide for protection of rights of ownership and possession of properties owned by women, ensuring that such rights are not violated by means of harassment, coercion, force or fraud.
* The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2021: Domestic Violence shall mean all acts of physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and economic abuse committed by a respondent against women, children, vulnerable persons, or any other person with whom the respondent is or has been in a domestic relationship that causes fear, physical or psychological harm to the aggrieved person. It defines ‘emotional, psychological and verbal abuse’ as ‘where the aggrieved individual suffers from a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct of the respondent.’ Such abuse includes but is not limited to (not enacted).
* The Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Bill, 2021: Special court would be established for speedy trial of the cases. Under this law, special court, anti-rape crises cell, and special committee would be set up to hear rape cases and registered complaints. Legal assistance to the victims on a pro bono basis would also be provided. Meanwhile, enlistment of independent support advisers, to provide support to the victims is also part of the bill.