Long-term political commitment to women’s rights will be a useful starting point
Even a brief flashback to some of the atrocities and violence women in Pakistan have been subjected to presents a shameful montage: lashed in public over suspicion of zina (Swat in 2009), gang raped on a jirga’s orders (Mukhtaran Mai), killed for dancing at a wedding (Kohistan), private parts burned by husband (Zainab in the early 90s), burnt alive on suspicion of blasphemy (pregnant Shama along with her husband), rape and murder of girl children — from Zainab Ansari to the recent cases of a 7-year old in Rawalpindi and a 4-year old in Mansehra.
Each year November 25 marks the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The commemoration and related activities continue with their culmination on International Human Rights Day on December 10. It is heartening to note the increasing participation of men in many parts of the world, signifying both greater awareness and a growing commitment to putting a stop to violence against women. Yet, worldwide, the statistics on domestic physical and sexual abuse, trafficking of women, as well as denial of bodily rights continue to be alarming.
The sixteen days of activism largely go unnoticed in Pakistan apart from scant media coverage of token events and some suitable statements. So, what does the report card on Pakistan look like?
If it were to be given a grade, it would doubtless be an ‘F’. An opinion poll by Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked Pakistan sixth (as compared to third in 2011) in its list of the world’s ten most dangerous countries for women. This is not because the status and safety of Pakistan’s women have improved but because they have deteriorated elsewhere for women, particularly in countries suffering from civil war. In 2018, India was ranked as number one on account of violence against women which has seen a sharp rise after the coming into power of the right-wing BJP government.
In Pakistan, apart from a weak response from those in power to each incident of violence against women, a sheer negligent attitude is visible towards institutions that stand as protectors of women’s rights as well as human rights. The position of chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) remains vacant after the end of term of the last chairperson, Khawar Mumtaz.
An opinion poll by Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked Pakistan sixth (as compared to third in 2011) in its list of the world’s ten most dangerous countries for women. This is not because the status and safety of Pakistan’s women have improved but because they have deteriorated elsewhere for women, particularly in countries suffering from civil war
Even more disturbing is the apathetic attitude towards the National Human Rights Commission, which has been without a chairperson and other office-bearers since May this year. Both institutions, though headed by those selected by the government in power, have done commendable work in protecting the rights of the vulnerable and have acted independently— sometimes to the government’s discomfiture. Surprisingly, all political governments have, so far, allowed both these commissions to work without much interference; however, funding and general support have been minimal. Of course, the stature of those heading or representing these commissions has also contributed to their autonomy.
In terms of legislation, Pakistan’s parliament has done fairly well over the past decade or so. Several significant laws were enacted by the PPP-led government that came into power in 2008 to ensure greater protection for women’s rights. These include laws covering sexual harassment at workplace acid attacks as well as ending customary and harmful practices affecting women.
The PML-N government that succeeded made a crucial amendment in laws regarding honour killings, making the state a party and ruling out settlements based on ‘forgiveness’. This was one positive outcome that came of the much-publicised and gruesome case of the killing of social media star, Qandeel Baloch. Moreover, all the provincial assemblies, with the exception of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have passed laws against domestic violence.
The last KP Assembly, inexplicably, sent the draft law to the Council of Islamic Ideology for review and the matter rests there. Currently, certain bills covering issues from child abuse to forced conversions are pending in the parliament. In another positive development, the Sindh Assembly raised the minimum age of marriage to eighteen, which should lead to an end to child marriage.
However, laws are just the first step in the process of meaningful change. They are certainly an expression of intention. But the true test lies in enforcement of these laws. Often rules are not framed for implementation and obstacles soon emerge. The yawning gap between lawmakers and the administration on the ground, tasked with enforcement of laws, becomes clearly discernible. Legislators appear to be under the impression that their job is done with the passing of laws. However, that is just the beginning of ownership and responsibility for the government of the day as well as members of parliament who can certainly contribute to creating awareness about pro-women laws in their own constituencies. There is also an urgent need for gender sensitization of those responsible for enforcement and interpretation at the local level – including law enforcers and the lower judiciary.
Crimes against women have not decreased with the introduction of laws. While cases of honour killings have come down from over a 1000 each year to about 400, incidents of rape show a disturbing rise annually (going by official statistics). Rape and killing of girl children are becoming common and the fear is that after a while these crimes will fail to shock.
The status of women in Pakistan — and their vulnerability — are deeply rooted in patriarchy. It will take social change over decades, perhaps, to improve the situation. However, long-term commitment to women’s rights by our rulers and the political will are useful starting points.
The writer is a human rights activist