Not a day passes in the country, Sindh in particular, when deadly violence against women goes unreported. For decades, we have witnessed an unending war against women of all ages, yet our response and the state’s reaction is casual.
The brutal murder of high school student Tania Khaskheli near Sehwan two weeks back sent shock waves across the country, with photographs of her body going viral on social media. Civil society groups and political organisations, particularly the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), Sindhiyani Tehreek and Sindhi Aurat Tanzeem (SAT) along with writers were at the forefront in not just condemning this heinous crime but demanding justice for Tania as well.
It took the Sindh chief minister and IGP one week to visit Tania’s family and give assurance of justice; the accused is believed to have links with the power corridors. The police were finally able to arrest him and charged him with murder.
What was Tania’s crime? Only that she refused to marry her killer (who is believed to have had links with local criminals). Tania’s killer was arrested because of a collective campaign by society. The action was also taken because the victim was killed in the constituency of Sindh’s chief minister; the political fallout could have been damaging for him had there been no action on his end.
Has there been a year when human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), did not come up with compiled reports of violence against women? A report back in 2013 alone reported that 5,151 women were subjected to violence in Punjab – among them 774 murdered, 217 killed for ‘honour’, 1,569 abducted, 706 raped/gang-raped and 427 driven to suicide.
On average, one thousand women are killed every year and Pakistan ranks 82 out of 93 countries in the Gender Empowerment Measure and stood at 115 out of 140 countries in the Gender Inequality Index of 2011.
Women’s rights have been paid mere lip service in this country. While there is enough evidence of continued violence and killings against women, what progress have we really made? Women’s literacy rate alone shows us how seriously state and society have treated this issue. In many districts of Sindh, adult women’s literacy is less than 12 percent.
The government is not focusing on what is possible in terms of building institutional mechanism to protect the lives of vulnerable women. The traditional approach has led us to the current state of affairs, whereas the departmental approach, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, has largely failed women.
There is so much good work done on research papers and concept papers on the status of women, women’s banks, women’s police station etc. (Do women police stations even have the right to lodge FIRs?). Women’s shelter homes are in a shambles, with on average 30 women with children living in one room; this is another form of punishment after they have left their homes in distress. See the state of shelter homes in Sukkur and Larkana. We often come across very disturbing reports from these very places which are supposed to heal them and serve as a platform to give them access to free justice?
Legal aid to women in upper Sindh is non-existent; women’s rights organisations and other NGOs and bar associations could have established legal help centres at district headquarters in the region. Though the work of these NGOs is appreciable, the greater responsibility lies with government. Non-profits need resources and a bureaucratic approach, guided by a patriarchal mindset, will not address the endless injustice faced by women.
Sindhi women’s political activism under various banners brought women into politics from underprivileged classes. The Sindhiyani Tehreek, under the heroic leadership of Sahibzadi Dahri, Mumtaz Nizamani, Naseem Sindhi, Zahida Shaikh and many others, has made a great contribution since the 1980s. This political awakening launched an attack on the tribal traditions of keeping women confined to the home, as well as issues such as honour killings, under-age marriages and non-consensual marriage. Their campaign against the jirga system halted this male-dominated justice system of the elite for some time, but the jirga system continues to operate in many parts of the country.
Creating economic opportunities for rural women – or for that matter women in the smaller towns of Sindh – socio-economic space, jobs, cultural space, libraries, skill development programmes etc could help bring out the best of women at the grassroots level. At present, women are working only in the health and education sectors in small and big towns; even private banks in smaller cities do not employ educated women.
The socio-economic structure of society is not pro-women; it treats them as sisters, wives, mothers and daughters but not as individual equal citizens. Patriarchy decides their fate, and the ever-widening class divide is inflicting more pain on them. Tania’s killing is a case in point; the powerful rich treat the poor as their subjects. The situation with minorities in lower Sindh is the worst, where their women are kidnapped, exploited, or kept as bonded labour. Thousands such women can be seen working in the fields. Life-long labour does not free them, does not make their dreams come true and a vicious cycle of poverty continues to deny them the fruits of modernity.
The way out is clearly the one taken by Veeru Kolhi, herself a bonded labour worker who, when freed, questioned political hold and contested the general elections. Though she lost, she stood as symbol of courage and a mighty voice for her community. If we keep hoping that once their socio-economic conditions change, the suffering of women will end as well, we are wrong. It won’t happen unless politics is changed and is in the right hands, and unless public policy is in the hands of these very people who have gone through the agony of being exploited and who know what life means to men and women who do not own land, means of production and a respectable source of earning. At present, only the awakened civil society and progressive political forces can challenge this injustice.
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