Gendered violence is compounded by cultural norms that subject women to harm in the name of tradition
he global 16 days of activism campaign against gender based violence sadly reflects a consistent lack of significant change in the scale of such violence. Despite international efforts such as the adoption of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which affirm women’s right to physical and psychological integrity, the stark reality persists: a large number of women worldwide continue to endure gender based violence.
Violence against women in Pakistan is widespread and prevalent across class, age, region, religion and ethnicity etc. Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-2018 found that more than one in four ever-married women aged 15-49 had experienced physical violence at least once. Six percent had experienced sexual violence. 34 percent of married women had experienced spousal physical, sexual and emotional violence. The most common type of spousal violence is emotional violence (26 percent), followed by physical violence (23 percent). 26 percent of women have sustained injuries during pregnancies. Most notably, 56 percent of women survivors of violence never sought help.
Various forms of sexual, physical and psychological violence disproportionately affect marginalised segments of society, such as women, children, transgender and religious minorities.
The scourge of physical and sexual violence is compounded by cultural norms that subject women to harm in the name of tradition. The pervasive concept of izzat has been crafted to safeguard the privilege and power of men over women, wherein men’s honour is inexplicably tied to women’s bodies, transgression or perceived misconduct often leading to violence, condoned by local cultural norms. The custom of karo-kari in Sindh, kala kali in the Punjab, tor-tora in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, siya kari in Balochistan endorse the killing of women in the name of ‘honour.’
The pervasive concept of izzat has been crafted to safeguard the privilege and power of men over women, wherein men’s honour is inexplicably tied to women’s bodies, transgression or perceived misconduct often leading to violence.
The national security state has also played a role in fostering a violent mindset by promoting violent masculinities as a security imperative. The notion of hegemonic masculinity revolves around the idea that honour lies in protecting women and the motherland. The security paradigm systematically ingrains violent masculinities in the political sphere that spill over into private arena of home and the society. Extremist ideologies have been propagated through educational curricula and funding of religious seminaries. A conservative version of Islam upholds the separation of public-private, productive-reproductive spheres through sex segregation and the institution of purdah, reinforcing patriarchal control over women’s lives and sexuality.
Incidents of domestic violence, sexual assault, honour killings, acid attacks, the abduction of minority community girls and forced marriages are prevalent. Pakistan is rated as the third most dangerous country for women in the world, ranking 150 out of 153 countries on the Women, Peace and Security Index.
While women’s lives are threatened with everyday violence in the public and private sphere, the protective measure of laws, gender sensitive criminal justice system and supportive structures such as shelter, crisis centres, psycho-social counselling and rehabilitation services for survivors of violence are inadequate and weak. Even with protective legislation, a culture of impunity prevails. The conviction rate in cases of violence against women is less than five percent. This failure of the justice system to dispense justice contributes to the prevalence of gender based violence.
The escalating violence, intolerance, extremism and radicalisation in the society can be traced back to systemic issues deeply rooted in the political economy of a patriarchal state and society. Gender functions as a fundamental organising principle of the society. The hierarchical gender status quo is maintained through the mechanism of violence against women. The material underpinning of gender inequalities is found in the unpaid domestic labour within the family and the exploitation of cheap labour in capitalist markets. Violence against women has emerged as a manifestation of unequal power in gender relations.
While immediate protective and supportive measures are crucial for the well-being and safety of the survivors of violence, these alone cannot eradicate violence against women. The movement to end violence against women must undergo a conceptual shift, recognising that such violence is not merely a private, individual act that requires judicial, punitive state response but a structural issue. Embodied violence and material and ideological structures of capitalism and imperialism are interlocking systems of oppression and exploitation. Violence against women is a structural issue that requires transformational structural response that challenge broader axes of oppression and exploitation perpetuated by capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy.
The writer is a former director of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University and a human rights activist. She can be reached at email@example.com