Saturday September 25, 2021

Women’s charter of demands

The writers are lawyers

On the 28the of October this year, the women of Pakistan released a letter and Charter of Demands, which was addressed to the state of Pakistan, and copies of which were shared with the president, prime minister, minister for law, minister for human rights, minister for interior and all members of the National Assembly.

As of now, over 1700 women across the country have signed the Charter of Demands, while over 200 men have endorsed it. Over 1700 women came together to express their grievances to the state, and recommend solutions for the way forward in protecting women, and the state’s response is apt: pretend like there is no problem to address.

The 22 demands contained therein encompass a broad range of issue areas, where reform can be pushed without substantive resource re-allocation and financial cost. For example, one of the demands calls for the expedited and increased recruitment of female police officers. Where women police stations cannot be immediately established, it has been recommended that women-staffed units be set up at each police station nationwide. This is the least that can be done to ensure that barriers to access for women in filing complaints and pursuing remedies are removed.

We are all well aware of the fact that when women go to police stations to register cases of harassment, they are discouraged from pursuing them by male police officers, who can neither empathize nor process the trauma and humiliation inflicted upon women as a result of what has been accepted as routine harassment.

In a similar vein, another demand provides for the expedited inclusion of female prosecutors and provision of adequate resources and facilities to Gender Based Violence (GBV) courts. Even after women overcome the hurdle of dealing with police, the next obstacle in their way are judges and lawyers who have not received gender sensitization training and, therefore, do not deal with issues of sexual violence in a tactful and sensitive manner. Women who have been subjected to sexual violence or harassment already have trauma inflicted upon them. No woman wants to relive the trauma, especially not in a criminal justice system where the odds are stacked against her.

Another important demand of relevance considering recent developments is the immediate removal of all elected and appointed state officials that engage in the victim-blaming of survivors of sexual assault. The charter demands that a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and misogynistic remarks be implemented. Recently, a government representative attributed a leading opposition figure’s “beauty” to “plastic surgeries” allegedly paid for with taxpayer’s money. As if it isn’t bad enough that women politicians’ physical appearances and clothes are commented on ad nauseum, now even the beauty of some female politicians is subject to question and turned into political fodder.

There is a history and context for these sexist attacks. Senior male leadership from the PPP, PML-N, PTI and JUI-F have all made remarks of this kind at one point or another, often even on the floor of parliament. What we see in response to such attacks is a classic deflection tactic: but others have done so too. That is exactly the point – everyone has done it and it is not acceptable. It can never be tolerated, regardless of where the attack against a woman is coming from.

Equally important is the demand for introducing, and making compulsory, intermediate and secondary level courses highlighting legal and moral viewpoints on gender sensitization, harassment and sexual violence. It is pertinent to recognize the prevalence of rape culture and teach children in schools about the concept of consent. At present, women in Pakistan are not viewed as having agency of their own – that is the fundamental root cause of violence against women.

Another significant demand in the charter is to decriminalize defamation in Pakistan, particularly in light of the decision by several democratic governments around the world to get rid of their criminal defamation laws. What we have seen in Pakistan is this criminal defamation law being used to silence survivors of harassment and sexual violence. Safe spaces for women cannot be created – online or offline – till the culture of silence is broken.

The only way to ensure silence does not persist is through the creation of a safe and enabling environment in which survivors can speak about their traumatic experiences of violence and harassment. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of expression has already stated that criminal defamation laws are an unjustifiable restriction on expression and that the same must be abolished.

Despite the scale of violence and harassment prevalent in Pakistan, Gender Based Violence (GBV) courts have not been operationalized throughout the country, reflecting the non-serious attitude of the State towards women’s issues. Former CJ Asif Saeed Khan Khosa had directed all the high courts across the country, in October 2019, to ensure the establishment of GBV courts by November 4, 2019.

This apathy towards the plight of women is also reflected in non-implementation of the Criminal Law Amendment (Offence of Rape) Act 2016. This law was an important piece of legislation; since it was introduced, women have not been charged with zina for reporting rape. However, the law is not enough – there also needs to be awareness of the law and here is where state apathy is reflected. Most women do not know that if a police officer, or medico-legal officer, refuses to proceed in accordance with law where the crime of rape is reported, they can invoke Section 166 of the Penal Code 1860 (public servant disobeying law, with intent to cause injury to any person).

While cases of abduction and kidnapping for rape, sexual abuse, etc. have to be decided within a three-month time frame, this time period is not strictly adhered to. Women who do approach the courts for some form of relief in these cases are often left disappointed and disgusted as proceedings linger on and they face additional trauma and humiliation in court.

Understanding that these are not isolated incidents of violence but part of a larger pattern stemming from how women are viewed in Pakistan is crucial. Some facts in this regard are pertinent to expose the scale of violence. Since the motorway gang-rape incident on September 9 this year, there have been 123 cases of rape and gang rape reported in the country. On September 13, a young girl was gang-raped and killed by three people in Jhelum. On the same date, another girl was repeatedly raped by her stepfather in Gujranwala; and also on the same date, another girl was sexually assaulted at gunpoint in Bahawalpur by an influential person.

On September 14, a woman in Bahawalpur was gang-raped after returning home from a marriage ceremony. Also on September 14, a man, his brother and other accomplices stabbed his first wife to death in Lahore. Again, on September 14, a woman in Sargodha was killed by her nine year old nephew over ‘honour’.

On September 15, a female lawyer was killed by her husband in Hyderabad. On September 16, a woman was shot by her brother in Lahore. There are too many cases and not enough space here to narrate the data from September 13 this year till November 11.

Is the state asleep? Does it not realize that no woman in Pakistan is safe anywhere? Does it have no responsibility towards its citizens – except to mobilize after public pressure when news of a horrific incident surfaces? It has been weeks since the president and prime minister were sent the Charter of Demands. Acts of violence continue with impunity on a massive scale; we only come to know of those cases reported. Yet, neither the president nor the prime minister has felt it appropriate to respond to these 1700 women or to take this charter forward.

Twitter: @ImaanZHazir

Twitter: @NighatDad