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A group photo of women nominated for district committees at the inaugural ceremony in Peshawar. — File photo
A group photo of women nominated for district committees at the inaugural ceremony in Peshawar. — File photo

Even a decade after its formation, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commission on the Status of Women has failed to deliver on its promise of empowering women in the province by checking gender-based violence and inequality.

Formed through legislation by the provincial assembly in 2009 to promote the women’s rights and eliminate all kinds of discrimination against them, the commission remained dormant in the years ahead.

The last PTI government tried to revitalise the KPCSW in Dec 2017 by unveiling a plan to take it to the district level but that, too, turned out to be a half-hearted effort.

During a ceremony in Peshawar, the then chief minister, Pervez Khattak, had announced the formation of district committees on the status of women insisting the initiative will ensure the protection of the women’s rights at the grassroots level.

Tipped to be part of the committees, the civil society members, women, lawyers, doctors, journalists and representatives of religious minorities were also in attendance there.

Though these panels were considered to be an effective means to check gender-based violence and address other women’s issues, both the last and current governments failed to notify them to the disappointment of women and activists of their rights.

Today, honour-related killings, domestic violence against women, forced marriages of minor girls and women in line with the local custom of vani to settle blood feuds, early marriages and kidnapping of women, and suicides among women are common in the province with many blaming it on the inefficiency of the provincial commission on the status of women.

Alarmingly, the arrest of women in murder cases has significantly increased in the province since the last PML-N-led federal government ended the suspension of the death penalty in 2015 after seven years.

Also, more and more women are being subjected to the honour killing crimes though a law was imposed in 2016 promising stricter punishments for major crimes against women.

Under the new law, if someone is murdered in the name of honour by a close family member, the culprits will be liable to a mandatory punishment of 12 and a half years and will only be pardoned by the victim’s family in case they’re awarded capital punishment.

Ironically, most women deaths through honour killing, suicide and at the hands of unskilled birth attendants aren’t reported across the province, especially in far-off areas.

The KPCSW was supposed to check deaths through district committees on the status of women but no to avail, as these bodies haven’t become functional.

“We have sent the names of the chairmen and members of the district committees, including doctors, female members from local government and nongovernmental organisations for district committee on status of women in Mansehra and sent them to the KPCSW secretariat but their response,” said district social welfare officer Abdul Rasheed, who is the secretary to the commission by the virtue of his post.

He said furniture had been delivered to the social welfare department across the province for the offices of the district committees on the status of women but ironically, those bodies hadn’t been formed so far.

Mr Rasheed said the proposed panels would help address the women’s complaints about inheritance, domestic violence and workplace harassment besides ensuring the provision of psychological and social support where needed.

“The district committees on the status of women are bound by the law to refer the women’s cases to the relevant departments and authorities for prompt action,” he said.

Though in contact with the women subjected to violence and inequality in their respective areas, the nominated members of the district committees are unable to ensure the dispensation of justice to them due to a long delay in their notification.

“I have met many women, who are victims of sexual harassment, honour-related crimes and other excesses by male members of society, but the government’s failure to notify our committees coupled with flawed judicial system and poor police investigation are denying justice to those poor souls,” Sajida Hasrat Khan, the nominated chairperson for Haripur district committee on the status of women.

She said the composition of proposed committees was remarkable for having the representation of all segments of society and therefore, they could play an important role in checking crimes against women significantly.

“Suspects in a case about the burning of a first-year student alive in a wagon in Abbottabad got off scot-free only because the police’s investigations were faulty,” she claimed.

Sajida declared the resignation of KPCSW chairperson Neelam Toru last year a major blow to the commission and said the surprise development also led to the delay in the functioning of the district committees on the status of women.

Sobia Irum, the regional manager of NGO Khawendo Kor, believed that if the KPCSW became functional at the district level, the incidence of gender-based violence, honour killings and issues of inheritance and marriage dissolution would decline drastically.

She said currently, her organisation only offered legal aid to distressed women in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Mansehra.

“Our organisation has taken up over 576 cases of marriage dissolution, domestic violence, rape, early marriages, post-marriage problems, and inheritance issues alone in Mansehra during the last two years. Most of them have been resolved through the courts of law,” she said.

Ms Sobia said it was a man dominated society where women couldn’t move out of home even to courts for their rights without the consent of their male family members.

“If the government is sincere, it should empower women by immediately setting up district committees on the status of women,” she said.

Members of the religious minorities, which have representation in the district committees, criticised the KPCSW over its inefficiency over the years, especially about the handling of their issues.

“I think that the KPCSW is a powerless body, which hasn’t had any tangible achievement since it became functional almost a decade ago,” said minority district councillor Luqman Shergill.

The councillor said the commission could ensure the resolution of the issues of minorities and marginalised segments of society, including women, by working in line with its mandate.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2019