PAKISTAN has good reason to ponder the consequences of the high level of violence against women during the campaign called 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence that ends on Human Rights Day, five days from now.
When this campaign started on Nov 25, observed every year since 2000 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, many civil society organisations, collectively and severally, expressed concern at the high figures of violence against women.
These efforts were commendable but they did not go far enough. There has not been much worthwhile activity during the rest of the days of activism. Worse, one has waited in vain for any fresh initiative by the government to deal with the root causes of violence against women, or even to reduce its scale.
The relevant statistics are truly alarming. According to a non-official count 5,151 women have been subjected to violence this year in Punjab alone — among them 774 murdered, 217 killed for ‘honour’, 1,569 abducted, 706 raped/gang-raped and 427 driven to suicide.
The number of women killed for giving birth to girls has gone up. A few days ago, when these lines were being written, a man was reported to have thrown acid on his wife’s face for delivering a girl and another report disclosed a racket that forced women into prostitution by offering them jobs at home and abroad.
These figures released by civil society organisations do not offer a complete picture of women’s tribulations as a large number of cases are still not reported. These figures apart, the gravity of the situation can be gauged from the statistics of violence against women contained in a recent report to parliament by the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights.
According to this report (for January 1,2012 to September 15, 2013) there were 860 ‘honour’ killings (mostly women), 481 incidents of domestic violence, 90 cases of acid burning, 344 cases of rape/gang rape, and 268 incidents of sexual assault/harassment.
These incidents tell us only about visible violence. Instances of invisible violence are much more numerous and cause much greater havoc. Some of the more common forms of non-cognisable violence are: preventing girls from acquiring education, especially of their choice; destruction of girls’ schools; restrictions on women’s mobility; denial of jobs on merit and equal wage for equal work; child marriages, forced marriages, and tendering of girls to resolve feuds.
Unfortunately, the issue of violence against women is still treated in Pakistan largely in terms of the losses and suffering caused to the victims and their families whereas the loss to the community should be given equal, if not more, importance.
Gender-based violence in the home affects the physical and mental growth of children; violence at workplace reduces women’s efficiency and output; and all other forms of violence against women prevent them from contributing their share to the economy and services.
Violence against women is a major factor in this country’s lowly rating on the gender empowerment scale. Pakistan ranks 82 out of 93 countries in the Gender Empowerment Measure and stands 115 out of 140 countries in the Gender Inequality Index of 2011.
Thus, the issue that needs to be focused upon during the current campaign is the slow pace of women’s empowerment. Violence against women is both a cause and a result of their disempowerment.
Seen from this perspective the government and civil society both should not be content with lamenting the extent of violence against women or with making plans to catch and punish the culprits; they should be working on realistic initiatives for women’s empowerment.
The first task obviously is to ensure that all girls are able to receive proper and meaningful education because knowledge is power. Now that Article 25-A of the Constitution obliges the government to provide education facilities to all children aged five to 16 special efforts will be needed to fill the gender gap at least at the primary and secondary levels.
At the same time, health cover will have to be extended to the female population and its quality raised. It will also be necessary to look at the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates and the incidence of children’s death and retardation due to malnutrition.
Pakistan is going to pay a heavy price for its failure to realise the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Now is the time for the government to decide what it wishes to do in the post-2015 phase.
There is also a pressing need to guarantee women their economic rights. One should like to know how the law against evil customs is being implemented. Has the practice of denying women their share of inheritance ceased or declined?
Economic independence, freedom to choose one’s career, and the right to manage one’s earnings are key factors in women’s empowerment. In all these areas, the government is yet to meet the call of affirmative action. Even watchdog bodies, such as the National Commission on the Status of Women, are denied the requisite freedom and resources.
That violence against women and obstacles to their empowerment are both rooted in the feudal culture, of which patriarchy is a core element, is widely known.
So long as state and society do not realise the need for a social revolution, including demolition of patriarchal and feudal tyranny, it will be possible neither to end violence against women, nor to empower them, nor even to break the vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation, as a result of which women suffer more than men, and non-Muslim women more than Muslim ones. What the people wish to know on Dec 10 this year and in the years to come is what concrete steps are going to be taken to meet the challenge of Pakistan’s uplift through women’s emancipation and empowerment.