THE obvious is often obscure, it seems. The state of affairs regarding women’s rights has hardly ever been a matter of pressing concern for our masters. Yet ornamented rhetoric has taken over grass-root reforms, and our gradual numbing to screaming headlines of abuse and assault on the basic dignity of women has reduced most of the work to mere table talk.
Let’s talk basics. One could argue that women’s rights are intrinsically ingrained in the Constitution — which they are — and hence the matter is adjudicated. Meanwhile, laws to protect and empower women passed in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan employ ferociously ambitious clauses, which might make even the most cynical observer hopeful. Yet beneath the overarching landscape painted by these legislative feats, there is an absence of solid foundations. Excepting Punjab, there are no implementation mechanisms embedded in pro-women laws, while the architects of criminal justice have designed a system to address abuses they have never had to face.
Take violence against women, for example: a woman facing abuse has to gear up for battle on multiple fronts. The notion of her seeking support and justice outside the walls of her abode is still frowned upon by society. Her agony doesn’t end here. The poorly-trained state apparatus she must turn to for protection still grapples with moral dilemmas surrounding her circumstances — from her lifestyle to clothes to domestic background, all factor into an officer’s deliberations on whether to file a report or to send her off with a sermon about preserving the sanctity of the home by keeping silent on ‘trivial’ issues like abuse.
Hollow chants of equal rights for all might be enough to keep patriarchal policymakers content, but at what cost?
On the rare occasion that a case is filed, the burden to prove the abuse — without having the tools necessary to do so — is on her. Physical abuse requires a medico-legal report, but getting to a state medical facility in the first place is an uphill battle. Moreover, the lack of awareness among victims of the crucial impact timely medico-legal examinations have on investigations often result in delayed reporting, and hence critical evidence to successfully prosecute perpetrators is lost.
From reporting to evidence collection to the trial itself, the system disenfranchises the victim every step of the way. The survivor service model of the Violence against Women Centre in Multan addresses this by providing each service — including police, prosecution, medico-legal facility and rehabilitation — under one roof, by its all-women team, despite not being allocated funds and salaries for months.
This bias against women embedded in our criminal justice system has been irrefutably gauged for decades, but to no recourse. Selective amendments to laws, thrust upon the public when an incident arouses national uproar, proves that women’s empowerment, instead of being crafted through policy-based structural reform, is curated according to populist sentiment.
Herein lies another issue. Political parties often decorate their manifestos with promises of ushering in a new era for the disenfranchised half of Pakistan’s population, yet rarely have dedicated teams within their ranks actually working on a roadmap for implementation. And with no real watchdog to keep a politically neutral check on elected governments’ election promises, most women empowerment reforms never see the light of day. For the few that are legislated on, we are faced with the eternal question that has haunted most of Pakistan’s development agendas: how will it be implemented, and by whom?
The power to do so rests with the bureaucracy. This reality is in stark contrast to the belief that elected officials have about their roles when they enter the mammoth legislatures, with their ability to boost even the most meagre of egos. There is an inevitable clash between what the people’s representatives want versus what they can get from the state machinery. It is unfair to demand reform from a system designed to follow the beaten path and discourage even the slightest course correction. To task already stretched departments with implementing new agendas and reforms will inevitably result in a flawed product for the people.
Women development departments in Pakistan are no different. They are barely financed with budgets to match their ambitions, and thus mostly relegated to planning events for International Women’s Day. It begs the question: why has a specialised field like gender been left to career civil servants who are often shifted from one department to another, triggering a never-ending reinvention of the wheel? To connect with on-ground issues in real time and provide genuinely implementable solutions, there is a dire need for a specialised cadre for women-specific development. Though the Punjab Women Protection Authority Act, 2017, was introduced keeping such views in mind, it has yet to be made functional.
From criminal justice to societal attitudes that hold women’s basic rights and development back, a starting point for women empowerment reforms must be the careful review and corresponding amendment to policies and implementation mechanisms. Hollow chants of equal rights might be enough to keep patriarchal policymakers content, but at what cost? How much longer must we pretend that our job is done with the collective sighs we exhale whenever a rape victim is killed without justice, or a woman is sexually harassed at her workplace with no recourse, or a woman simply seeking a divorce is dragged through the courts with never-ending delay tactics?
It’s time to shrug off this immaculate imitation of a just country for women and bring forth real change — forging a nation where women are equal participants in the development process rather than the subjects of social experiments. Federal and provincial governments alike should harness their resources to further the groundbreaking work already in progress instead of engaging in populist rhetoric that only serves to strengthen misogyny. The revolution is here and to stay, till the last woman standing, and — this time — men should stand beside them.
Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2019