The year of unmet promises

December 27, 2020

Amidst rising violence against women, enforced disappearances, heavy press censorship, misdirected government action and rising unemployment, hope came from the hard work of women and gender and sexual minorities

2020 has been a sombre year. The Covid pandemic that has defined this year has forced the world to confront the many seams of inequality that run through our societies. For sexual and gender minorities, the year has confirmed what we already know: that these identity groups are disadvantaged in the economic, political and social sphere. However, because this disadvantage is sequestered largely in the private sphere, and remains under-researched by the government, the fact remains contested.

Among the worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic have been workers. They continue to suffer the aftershocks of the pandemic. At the start of the lockdown, factories laid off workers in droves and the government turned a blind eye despite petitions in court. Manufactures were later able to secure tax breaks from the government using the same workers as a pretext. Financial benefits did not reach the lowest-rung workers later as demand, especially in the textile sector, rose.

The most precarious workers are those with the least legal protections. Home-based workers, domestic workers – both largely women – migrant workers and contractual and casual workers fall in this category. All of these workers remained ignored during the pandemic as long-standing promises of protection for these workers remained unmet. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan lack laws that extend protection to domestic workers and home-based workers entirely. Punjab passed a law for domestic workers in 2019, but it has not been put into action. The Sindh government took the commendable step of not only passing a law for home-based workers in 2018, but also registering these workers this year. Workers continue to hope that the Sindh government will continue to make steady progress in this regard, and that others will follow suit.

The hidden toll of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the spike in domestic abuse. Being locked in the home with an abusive partner or family member, in a frustrating economic environment, is likely to lead to a spike in violence. No surprises then, that Zulfiqar Hameed, the ex-CCPO Lahore, reported that calls about domestic violence to the 15 police helpline increased by 25 percent during lockdown, even as incidence of murder declined by 80 percent. In this context, Punjab’s lack of functioning Violence Against Women Centres added to the suffering of women and children. The sole Violence Against Women Centre in Multan faces acute funding shortages, and the wide network of Darul Amans in the country scrambled to reconcile Covid-19 SOPs with their services. Shelters had to rethink their protocols entirely to accommodate women and children seeking shelter, while ensuring wellbeing of their current boarders. Gender and sexual minorities were excluded here too, as violence against them rose but no shelters existed to take them in. In fact, due to lack of rules and policies under the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, these groups lack the legal protections afforded to women in domestic violence situations.

Looking back however, the most macabre and notable event for gender and sexual minorities in Pakistan has been the rape of a mother on the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway in September and the abduction and forced conversion of 13-year-old Arzoo Raja in Karachi. Brutal as the September rape was, it was the response that followed the incident that brought home to everyone, irrespective of gender, why a high incidence of violence persists. State agencies tried to pass blame for the incident from one to the other, government officials at the federal and provincial level bent over backwards to justify the most sexist comments by the Lahore police chief. When the court reform law that activists had been demanding for decades was passed as the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Ordinance 2020 and Pakistan Penal Code (Amendment) Ordinance 2020, this done in the most non-transparent manner. I have been unable to secure the official text of these laws, but versions available online seem to extend only limited protection to transgender persons, and remain silent on the essential education around gender that all experts agree is central to overcoming sexual violence.

Arzoo Raja’s alleged abduction, rape and forced conversion too is emblematic. Forced conversions have rocked religious minority communities for years now, but have remained hidden from the majority of Pakistanis. They are not hidden anymore. In fact, our attention is attuned now more than ever to the manner in which law is unable to grasp the gravity of such cases. Instances of forced conversion seem to fall through the cracks of the legal system.

Singer Meesha Shafi’s harassment claim, still pending before the Supreme Court even as the defamation claim against her proceeds steadily, also draws our attention to the weaknesses in our laws and courts. It points to how complaints of sexual harassment are mere spectacles for public consumption, as the legal system is reduced to a bystander to a public trial of a woman.

Amidst this rising violence against women, enforced disappearances, heavy press censorship, misdirected government action and rising unemployment, there was always hope. This hope came from the resilience and hard work of women and gender and sexual minorities in Pakistan. Despite how electronic crimes laws have made women who speak up against sexual harassment vulnerable, high school students in Lahore, university students in Balochistan and women journalists across Pakistan banded together and chose to speak up, and continue to raise their voices against sexual harassment they have encountered. Despite threats of violence, litigation and vandalism, women, workers and minorities came out across the country to hold Aurat Marches on March 8. In fact, in Lahore and Islamabad, courts once again reaffirmed the marchers’ right to freedom of association and assembly. After the Motorway rape incident and young Arzoo Raja’s abduction, these same feminist groups mobilised to protest these acts of violence, and signal to all women that they are no longer alone and will not be silenced. Pakistan’s gender and sexual minorities are resilient, and it is their resilience and resolve that has led them to overcome some of the Zia-era laws and policies. It is their resilience that continues to give us hope.

The writer teaches law at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law, LUMS.

2020: The year of unmet promises