This independence anniversary, we ask experts and rights activists to highlight how conversations surrounding rights and freedoms can be shaped for a more progressive and inclusive society
In 2016, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act was passed and control of the digital landscape in Pakistan officially began. Not that the internet had not been surveilled or controlled earlier – the ban on YouTube, for example, came way before the PECA – but the PECA quickly became a legal tool that could be misused and abused to silence dissenters. Over the last few years, the FIA has lamented about the lack of resources to deal with real cybercrime against women, but has also been proactive in bringing about charges and initiating investigations against various journalists and political workers active on social media.
In addition to the activation of such tools of control, the internet in Pakistan has also become a place of toxicity; hate speech is rampant; disinformation is spread by organised networks; incitement to violence against marginalised communities is growing; and online violence against women is common. However, it won’t be fair to paint a picture that is all negative – progressive rights-focused groups have also started to use the internet more often and more effectively. From closed forums used by activists to arrange demonstrations and protests to open Twitter spaces where topics too sensitive for mainstream media are openly discussed, the internet, even in the surveilled, controlled form, is being used as an effective instrument to push for change. Such use isn’t limited to professionals from the media or human rights groups; individual citizens also use social media effectively to highlight issues with the legal justice system. For instance, families of victims of domestic violence have used social media to raise pressure for registration and pursuance of cases. Since 2021, many citizens have also approached the courts for strategic litigation on internet freedoms, cases that would hopefully help set a more progressive precedent for the internet in Pakistan.
— Sadaf Khan, digital rights activist and co-founder, Media Matters for Democracy
While celebrating the 75th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan, it is important to take stock of the fruits of independence for the nearly 50 percent of the population of Pakistan—it’s women. The status of women and girls has improved on nearly all the indicators of development. Female education has shown an upward trajectory from the 12 percent literacy rate in 1947 to 49 percent in 2022; life expectancy has improved to 68 years, and female labour force participation has risen from about 11 percent in 1990 to over 22 percent today. Unfortunately, these improvements have not prepared women for participation in today’s world characterised by a technological revolution. Our women are not equipped to fully engage with the new categories of jobs and processes due to weak participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics related fields of education and training. Their enrollment is mainly in the arts, social sciences and medical fields due to societal perception of ‘appropriateness’ of these areas for women and their role in society. As a result, while economic realities push more and more women into employment, lack of qualifications restricts their engagement to non-formal and/ or non-technical employment and, almost always in the manual and repetitive functions that pay little.
To prepare the women of Pakistan for today and tomorrow’s world, it is imperative that both the society and the state invest in their scientific and technical education. This will require increasing enrollment of women and girls in STEM disciplines, from school to universities. New employment and entrepreneurship opportunities are now available via digital platforms that provide flexibility and circumvent barriers of physical mobility and domestic commitments. However, the uptake is still very low for girls even in the tech sector where women comprise only 14 percent of the IT workforce. Increasing female participation in the STEM degrees may result in improved transition from education to employment for female university graduates, less than 25 percent of which enter the workforce. It will also require addressing the perception of roles of men and women in Pakistan that has stayed fixed despite the reality of women having to work to support families in large numbers. Above all, we need to operationalise the legal equality of women and men, provided in the constitution, to enable all its citizens to actualise their full potential.
— Fauzia Viqar, senior gender adviser
The 75th anniversary of independence of Pakistan should be an occasion for deep and serious self-examination as a nation regarding our performance in realising peoples’ rights because that was the purpose of the demand for Pakistan. We should discern the weaknesses and failures to provide fundamental rights and basic necessities to a large number of Pakistanis.
A persistent lethargy about the inherent values and principles of the basic framework of human rights contributes heavily to massive disregard of human rights in general and religious freedom in particular. Even though the concepts of inviolable dignity of human person and equality of human beings are part of our constitution and other documents, we haven’t discussed them enough, therefore, Pakistan needs a genuine discourse on these concepts in order to embrace them in letter and spirit. The propaganda and misconception about human rights being an alien concept will have to be dispelled by a nuanced intervention.
Secondly, our parliamentary practices, education and justice systems will have to acknowledge and fulfil the equality of citizens wholeheartedly. Thirdly, human rights can only flourish in a democratic dispensation. Democratic norms alone will help constitute a culture conducive for exercising civil liberties, namely, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association for human rights.
Although it looks like a gigantic task, the distance to this destination can be cut short by revisiting the ideal of a state we would like to make Pakistan. Pakistan shall prosper by moving away from deceptions of a security state and theocratic model. Coming out of fear and perpetual state of conflicts, religious and sectarian intolerance, regional tensions and gender disparity will be necessary to make Pakistan a welfare state.
— Peter Jacob, researcher and human rights activist