MULTAN: Being beaten almost daily by her husband is a routine part of Saadia Bibi’s life. “Ever since I was married nearly seven years ago, I have been slapped, punched or kicked virtually every day. Once or twice my husband has burnt me with cigarettes,” she told IRIN, in Multan, displaying the distinct, circular scars on her shoulders and legs.
The “misdemeanours” Saadia has been beaten for include cooking food which is “tasteless”, speaking “too loudly” on the telephone or “arguing back”.
“What I hate is the fact he now also beats our daughters, aged six and five, because he says they must learn to be obedient,” she says while talking to IRIN, the UN Information Unit.
But Saadia, 27, is unable to do very much to alter the situation. “Other women I have spoken to say it is a part of their lives too. What can we do about it?” she asks.
In its 2011 report on Pakistan the UK-based rights watchdog Amnesty International stated: "Gender-based violence, including rape, forced marriages, `honour killings’, acid attacks and other forms of domestic violence, was committed with impunity as police were reluctant to register and investigate complaints."
Previous studies, including one in 1999 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) have come up with similar findings noting that violence against women was an “epidemic”. HRW has since continued to campaign for laws to more effectively protect women.
According to a survey released in June 2011 by Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw, (which describes itself as a global hub for free legal assistance and news and information on good governance and women’s rights), Pakistan is the world’s third most dangerous country for women after Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 90 percent of women suffering domestic violence. Other forms of physical abuse are also common, states the report, based on assessments by gender experts.
The consequences for women can be horrendous. In April this year, according to media reports, two men entered the home of 28-year-old Asma Firdous in a village near Multan, cut off six of her fingers, slashed her lips and arms and sliced off her nose. Asma, taken to hospital by her parents, was “punished” for a dispute her husband had with relatives. Her future remains uncertain, with her husband unlikely to accept her back.
According to the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 791 women became victims of “honour killings” in 2010. An “honour killing” involves a murder carried out to “save” the perceived “honour” of a family after a woman is accused of “damaging” it in any way. Raped women, those who marry a man of their own choice, or those suspected of any contact with an unrelated man were among those killed. HRCP says the vast majority of domestic violence cases (not necessarily leading to murder) are never reported.
“The problem is that we are a highly patriarchal society. The status of women is low and also brutality is growing by the day,” Gulnar Tabussum, convener for the Women’s Action Forum NGO, told IRIN from Lahore.
A bill aimed at preventing domestic violence lapsed during 2010 because it could not be presented in time to the upper house of parliament.
As the Thomson Reuters Foundation report points out, Pakistan also has one of the world’s highest rates of murders related to dowry - the money and other gifts given to women at the time of marriage. The tensions this causes, and the violence it can lead to, are experienced by many women.
One of them is Humaira Hamid (not her real name), 21, married a year ago. “My husband and his family kept on demanding more and more gifts from my parents - TV sets, furniture, a washing machine and other items, even though they are not rich and had already given a lot at the time of the actual marriage. Even now the pressure continues, and I am beaten each time a present does not turn up after they have asked for it,” she told IRIN.
Like many other women in the same situation, she does not know what to do or where to turn to. “We are all helpless. My parents will never take me back given the stigma of divorce. It is unacceptable for a woman to live on her own even though I am educated and could support myself and so I have no choice but to try and bear my husband’s violence,” she said. “At least some of my friends are in the same situation - others never talk about it.”