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A thing of the past

Updated Sep 28, 2014 07:04am
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Southern Punjab is infamous for its treatment of women. It is here that the highest number of acid-related violent crimes are reported and in every district there are cases of ‘honour killings’ and sexual assault. A cursory scan of any newspaper will tell you that Jirga pronouncements against women are very common here.

Against this backdrop, is the village of Pipalwala. The residents of this village make ends meet by rearing cattle and growing vegetables and fruits. Low literacy rates, girls often married as young as fourteen years and up until recently, domestic violence was rampant.

Parveen who grew up in Pipalwala and has four sons was always on the receiving end of her husband’s stick. “He would find any and every excuse to beat me,” she says. “I used to be very afraid. The moment I heard his footsteps, my heart would start to race frantically. I would worry that he might come back and find an excuse to beat me …”


Would you believe that in the heart of southern Punjab, there is a village that is now ‘domestic violence free’?


Parveen’s story resonates with almost every single woman in that village. Kaneez, another resident, was married at a young age and her husband would often beat her with an axe handle or a stick, causing serious injuries. “Once he hit me so hard that my nose almost broke and I was bleeding everywhere. He pulled my hair and my entire face was swollen,” she says.

But the fate of Pipalwala and its women changed in 2008 when Shaista Bukhari visited the village.

Shaista was born and raised in Multan. Her father died when she was young and her family encouraged her to marry a man who was 20 years her senior. After five months, her husband died and her in laws abandoned her, blaming her for his sudden death.


Parveen who grew up in Pipalwala and has four sons was always on the receiving end of her husband’s stick. “He would find any and every excuse to beat me,” she says. “I used to be very afraid. The moment I heard his footsteps, my heart would start to race frantically. I would worry that he might come back and find an excuse to beat me …”


With no economic resources to fall back on, she struggled to find work to support herself. After months of searching she landed a contract at a local school canteen. It was at this time that Shaista realised the importance of economic independence and encouraged a group of women to take up embroidery, thereby creating a source of income for them.

For several years after that, she used the model of economic independence to empower women to take their fate in their own hands. “If we are to defeat domestic violence, women must be aware of their rights and must have some economic independence.”

She approached Parveen while working on a project in Pipalwala and encouraged her to discuss domestic violence with other women in her community. “When we started working, this concept was completely alien to them, and even now, the area has no schools,” says Shaista. When we spoke to some of the women, they would break down and start crying and tell us about the traumatic experiences they were going through and ask us what they could do about it.”

With Shaista’s help, Parveen formed a group called Saheli and would often gather the women in her neighbourhood to discuss ways that could change the attitude of men. The group would preach at any occasion they could find. “We would target weddings and funerals. We would tell other women that if you see violence speak up and say something. Treat your husband with love and respect and demand that they do the same,” she says proudly.

After months of perseverance, ‘Saheli’ saw results amongst women. Then, Shaista’s team began speaking to the men in the village and that’s when dramatic change began to take place.

“My husband hugged me one day and said no, I will not hit you ever again,” Parveen tells us joyfully. “He has changed a lot and has started preaching to the men in the village that we must treat our women well.”

After some time, Shaista returned to the village to find a massive sign on its entrance “This village is free of domestic violence.” She couldn’t believe what she was reading! “Pipalwala is the first village in Pakistan that is completely domestic violence free,” she says. “There will be more villages like this; when people visit this village, something clicks in their heads — if it works here, why can’t it work anywhere else?” she says.

Parveen and her cohorts often intervene in domestic violence disputes and try and find solutions for the women. “We don’t want our women to go to the police and the courts, we would rather empower them to solve their own issues,” she says.

A walk through the village shows just how successful Shaista and Parveen have been. Several homes now have plaques that read “This home is free of domestic violence” and you find both men and women actively speaking out against violence.

The commitment of a few has changed the entire mindset of a village that once had the reputation of being mired in all forms of domestic violence.

Sadly, it is not just this village, but across small towns and big cities and across social classes, domestic violence is very real in Pakistan and very few women speak out about it. It’s the accepted norm that your husband has some “right” to verbally and physically assault you. The fault lies partly with women, we don’t speak out, we don’t shun the men who do this and this emboldens them to continue abusing their spouses. We can all learn a thing from Pipalwala and emulate it and perhaps it is time for the sign “This house is free of domestic violence” to be placed outside all our houses!

To watch Shaista Bukhari’s inspirational story: Tune in: http://www.aaj.tv/aes/domestic-violence.html

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 28th, 2014