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Struggle for space

Updated March 08, 2019

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AS women around the world gather to celebrate and show solidarity on International Women’s Day today, Pakistan must reflect on where it stands with regard to women’s rights.

Since Independence, and leading up to it, women have played an important role in upholding democracy. And while many have progressed socially and economically, others continue to be excluded, particularly the poor, who live under the oppression of both poverty and misogyny.

Take a look: How far women’s struggle has pushed us forward

The modern women’s movement in Pakistan traces its roots to 1981, when the Women’s Action Forum organised against Gen Ziaul Haq’s anti-women and anti-minority laws. Since then, there has been much more awareness, vocalisation and mobilisation for rights. While only a handful of activists put themselves on the front lines in the battle for change, and suffer the consequences for such agitation, everyone benefits from their labour in the long run.

The impact of women’s campaigning can be seen in progressive policy as well as legislation enacted through the years, particularly in Sindh, which passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2014, increasing the age of marriage to 18. But while each generation saw a greater demand for rights, there was a simultaneous blowback from regressive quarters, and new challenges arose over time.

Also read: Women in Pakistan most vulnerable to harassment on Facebook, WhatsApp, says report

For instance, recent unprecedented technological advancements have led to another set of challenges: intrusion of privacy, stalking and gender-based bullying and sexual harassment. As more women enter the workforce, they are confronted with sexual harassment at the workplace and unequal treatment. Then there are women whose labour is not even recognised by the state, as it is relegated as ‘informal work’.

Nevertheless, many pro-women and pro-children laws have been passed over the years, including the Women’s Protection Act in 2006, which reversed some draconian clauses of the 1979 Hudood Ordinances (that saw the criminalisation of thousands of rape victims), brought rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, and made DNA evidence acceptable.

Pakistani law for women: A friend or foe?

In 2010, the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was passed. Sindh and Balochistan passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act in 2013 and 2014, while Punjab passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016.

That same year, another law abolished the loophole which allowed murderers who kill under the pretext of ‘honour’ to avoid imprisonment. The Acid Control and Acid Crimes Prevention Act, 2011, saw a significant decrease in the number of victims of the heinous crime.

Despite these laws being passed, there is little awareness of them among the general population, and a lack of sensitivity training for law-enforcement personnel. Until all forms of entrenched misogyny are rooted out, and until all women, men and transgendered people enjoy complete equality before the law — and until that law is implemented in letter and spirit — the struggle for greater space, representation and respect will continue.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019