THIS year, Pakistan’s women activists are observing 16 days of activism against gender violence (Nov 25 to Dec 10) with greater fervour than previously. At the same time, no sooner is a law to curb forced conversions adopted in Sindh than the orthodoxy is out in battledress to kill it. The fight for women’s rights in this country is going to get even more bitter.
Our women suffer every possible form of deprivation, insult and injury. Over the years, they have also won a few concessions in the form of somewhat favourable laws and policies. They have scored these successes largely through their own struggles. They have certainly received some support from governments, though more in the form of rhetoric than benevolent measures. And they have been helped by a tiny percentage of men who can risk being taunted by big, burly clerics as wives’ ‘slaves’, or worse, as the West’s ‘stooges’.
Each year, the women of Pakistan march a step forward and are pushed more than two steps back by the formidable knights of orthodoxy, patriarchy and pseudo-religious militancy. Thus, on balance, year by year the condition of women becomes bleaker and bleaker. Why is this so? But let us first pay some attention to the women’s dirge.
There is no systematic monitoring of the impact of women-friendly legislation.
At most of the meetings held in connection with 16 days of activism, the audiences were reminded of Pakistan’s being the third most dangerous country for women in the world, where 90pc of women experience some form of violence, and where the daily violence chart shows six women abducted, another six murdered, four molested and three driven to suicide.
Some other indicators of women’s plight include the Gender Gap Index 2015 that found Pakistan second from the bottom among 145 countries; the maternal mortality rate that shows Pakistan has slipped from 147th to 149th position in global ranking; and other disturbing figures showing that 55pc of girls do not go to school and 35pc are married before they turn 16.
While no form of women’s oppression can be condoned, violence is the worst affliction they are subjected to. And we use the term violence in the broad sense it has been defined by WHO ie “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”.
That violence against women is on the increase cannot be denied. The causes are known: the state’s growing reliance on physical force to settle any matters; brutalisation of society especially as a result of indiscriminate hangings; legalised and illegal torture/ detention cells; social customs that discriminate against the poor; the spread of evil customs of vani and swara, from peripheral districts to metropolitan centres; and poor implementation of women protection laws. The state has displayed neither the will nor the capacity to tackle these issues.
While there is some hue and cry when a Qandeel Baloch is murdered by a family member, few attempts are made to deal with less visible violence that women like her undergo.
Sindh has been criticised for raising the marriage age for girls to 18 years and extraordinary efforts are being made to block similar laws in other provinces. The laws made to curb violence against women run into two big obstacles. Firstly, they could be denounced by the Council of Islamic Ideology; its edicts against the Sindh child marriage law or the protection of women acts of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are glaring instances. Secondly, they may not produce the desired result for want of serious effort in implementing them. The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act is very much in force, but even magistrates are not aware of this fact.
Moreover, there is no systematic monitoring of the impact of women-friendly legislation. Have the authorities assessed the effectiveness or otherwise of the law to protect women against social evils?
Above all, violence against women, or any form of discrimination against them, cannot be curbed by only punishing the criminals directly responsible for such acts. The evil of women’s persecution cannot be fought without adopting a two-pronged strategy for their uplift.
Firstly, all those who preach hatred against women, from any pulpit or any platform, must be treated as criminals. Secondly, women must be offered the fullest possible opportunity for economic independence and advancement. This can be done, for instance, by eliminating unpaid women’s labour in agriculture, and by opening up to women jobs in sectors where they are still unwelcome.
A fair deal for Pakistan’s women would require political will and a multidimensional drive to ensure more attention towards them in the Vision 2025 projects than is visible at the moment and meaningful interpretation of the Sustainable Development Goals; these two programmes will offer measures for women’s progress or lack of it that no government can ignore.
Tailpiece: Sixteen months have passed since Zeenat Shahzadi, a young human rights activist, who dreamed higher than her family’s means permitted, was picked up from a bus stand near her home in Lahore. Her crime: she represented an Indian woman whose young son had ‘disappeared’ in Pakistan while trying to rescue an internet friend in distress. That man was traced and is now in prison for trying to be a good Samaritan. He is alive and his mother can hope to see him. But hope is deserting Zeenat Shahzadi’s mother; she is not sure if her daughter is alive.
The Commission of Inquiry into Enforced Disappearances looked at her file again in Lahore last Thursday. It only looked at the file. It had no word of cheer for Zeenat’s mother. The investigators’ faces — and perhaps their hearts too — were as impassive as ever. The inspector general of police was told to appoint a new investigation team!
What more horrible example of violence against women could be offered during these 16 days of activism?
Published in Dawn December 1st, 2016