December 10, International Human Rights Day, culminates each year in 16 Days of Activism for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This annual feature helps to highlight, globally, the urgency of addressing violence and crimes against women.
Readers may recollect a recent news item, of film star Nicole Kidman presenting five million signatures from all over the world, urging the elimination of violence against women. This signature campaign is still in full swing Pakistani activists have set themselves the ambitious target of a million signatures! Moreover, women campaigner organisations have organised several events to highlight the extent of violence against women (VAW), and seek ways to counteract it.
This yearly event commemorates the tragic history of the three Mirabel sisters; political workers from the Dominican Republic, who were brutally assassinated on November 25, 1961. In 1999 the UN adopted the 16-day period, from November 25 to December 10, as International Days of Activism for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, motivating rights-based workers all around the world to intensify their struggle against this menace.
That there is a burning need for such activism is only too clear. In addition to its various other `distinctions`, Pakistan now bears the gloomy feature of being the country with the sixth highest incidence of VAW.
We are only too familiar with the daily stories of violence, including even the beheading and burying alive of women. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, VAW is widely prevalent in the country. There have been 1464 cases of violence from January to September this year, many resulting in murder (Source Aurat Foundation) — and these are probably only the tip of the iceberg.
The brutality begins in infancy, continues even when a woman is pregnant. There is something deeply wrong with the Pakistani psyche; it has not yet been addressed with the seriousness it deserves. There appears to be total confusion about what constitutes Pakistani culture — every tradition, including misogynist ones, is followed as if written in stone. The core question is, does Pakistan want its women to survive, or not?
Already we have skewed gender statistics, with a large number of women living in pre-medieval misery and dying at a young age.
Domestic violence cuts across all income groups; further, there are acid attacks, burning, dowry abuse, incest, bondage, slavery, honour killings, watta satta, pait likhi, rape, spousal murder, torture and custodial abuse.
Women suffering extreme forms of torture are often driven to suicide. The international Human Rights Watch reported `staggering cases of intrafamily violence` (generally considered a family matter, and therefore not subject to government intervention).
Marital rape isn`t even recognised in Pakistan. Women from the poor and middle classes are the worst sufferers, because they are the ones who lack personal knowledge, and therefore decision-making power.
Studies have repeatedly shown that women who had access to social support structures were less likely to be abused. Clearly, awareness programmes are needed, not only to inform the public, but also to apprise women of possible risks, and help empower them.
Comprehensive laws need to be developed — not confusing ones. The Women`s Protection Act, 2007 has been a major step forward in amending the dreaded Hudood laws; such efforts need to be taken further.
For its part, the government has introduced several new initiatives, which will have far-reaching consequences. About 20 per cent of parliamentary representatives are women; indeed, they have now established their own caucus, irrespective of party affiliations, primarily to address women`s unequal gender status. In addition to women-sensitive policies in education, health, microfinance, there is a nationwide Gender Reform Action Plan to help women move ahead, and attain their full potential.
Pakistan is signatory to a host of international Treaties and Conventions, such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), two International Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights, and the other on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Above all, Pakistan has been an early signatory, in 1948, to the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Its own original Constitution of 1973 promised equality to all citizens, irrespective of caste, sex or creed.
That`s not all. Two recent landmark conferences, one on `Population and Development`, the other on `Women`, both stressed recommendations favourable to women; which have been agreed upon by Pakistan. Many of those recommendations are presently being implemented here. Where, then, lies the problem?
It lies in a hotchpotch of traditions harshly unfavourable to women, a (largely feudal and male) mindset that will, apparently, take centuries to change, and a legal system that is unable to fully, and firmly, implement even those laws that are favourable to women.
Agreed, that at present political tensions are running high, and that the fears of increasing terrorism grip people`s minds, but how long will endemic issues continue to fester? For the sake of this country, and its onward progress, it is essential to support women in their struggle for gender equality; their present unequal status will remain a blot on the Pakistani nation unless this issue receives the prominence it deserves.