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The long wait for change

December 19, 2012

IN 2009, the Afghan government enacted a law on the elimination of violence against women (EVAW).

The law was accompanied by other measures which included the establishment and regularisation of the high commission of elimination of violence against women in June 2010 and its provincial arms, and the establishment of the special prosecution unit in the attorney general’s office in March 2010.

The regularisation of women’s shelters followed as did the establishment of family response units in the Afghan national police force and gender units in various government ministries and departments. By even the most wishful standards of any women’s rights NGO, the array of tools and measures was a feast — meant to feed the underfed ranks of women’s rights in a country torn by decades of war. Here were all the recipes, theorised and parsed and put in charts and tables, multi-level plans and implementation reports; here was a system and it was supposed to deliver change — a better, more equal and safer world for Afghanistan’s women.

Yet it failed. According to a UN report released last week on the law’s progress in Afghanistan, and which looked at data from 22 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and included interviews and interactions with various ministerial officials, the “overall use of the law remained low” and “incidents of violence remained largely underreported under the law due to cultural restraints, social norms and taboos, customary and religious beliefs”.

The crime of battery and laceration of women was the most prevalent sort of violence seen and there was a noted increase in the number of ‘honour killings’.

In various incidents, the Afghan National Police — which received millions of dollars in grants to become gender-sensitive — continued to be either powerless against the perpetrators or actively supported crimes against women.

The results of the impact and implementation of the EVAW law in Afghanistan are grim. In the Pakistani context, they pose serious questions about the NGO model, top-to-bottom legal reform and empowerment as a means of reducing violence against women within the context of cultural opposition.

In Pakistan, the wrangling over the process began even before the actual passage of the law. Pakistan’s version of EVAW, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill started its journey in 2009 when the newly elected government led by the PPP pushed it through the lower house. The bill was not taken up by the Senate within the three-month limit and lapsed without passage.

It took nearly three years for the bill to be re-tabled in the Senate this February, where it met deadlock yet again. Among the misogynistic comments heaped on those supporting the bill were the usual allegations of Western influence behind efforts to empower women and charges that the bill was against Islamic principles.

All of these succeeded in ensuring that the law went nowhere at all. Meanwhile the 18th Amendment to the constitution made domestic violence a matter for the provinces. While it was passed with reference to the Islamabad Capital Territory, it has yet to be passed by any of the provinces.

One can weep, but if the Afghan experience bears any relevance to Pakistan it forces the question that even if the law were passed, how successful would it be in changing the patterns and frequency of domestic violence?

At the inauguration of the One Billion Rising campaign on Human Rights Day this year, Farzana Bari — the head of the gender studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University — provided statistics for the unsurprising reality that violence against women is on the increase in Pakistan. Sexual assault has nearly doubled between 2010 and 2011, acid attacks have increased by 37.5 per cent and ‘honour killings’ have risen by almost 27 per cent.

Were it not for the demoralising shadow of the Afghanistan case, one could put faith in the campaign at whose launch these figures were presented. Spearheaded in Pakistan by the Aurat Foundation, the One Billion Rising campaign seeks among other efforts to push the domestic violence bill in the provincial assemblies. At that victorious point, Pakistan would finally be at square one, where Afghanistan was in 2009.

Where then to find hope for women? The Afghan case illustrates that outside help — be it from international feminist organisations or foreign governments — fails to resolve the problem of violence against women.

And when legal reforms, if they are accomplished, are at best token efforts that sit dormant on law books, what must Pakistani women do to defeat the forces that see their persecution as easily permissible?

One feeble answer is the painful prescription of patience. Pakistani women, stuck in a culture where many women do not consider themselves worthy of rights and equality, must wait for alternate forces to push through the transformations that they have failed to win for themselves.

In their case, then, it may be not feminist movements, or rights awareness, or bills tied to tacky political agendas touting women’s rights, but the unrelated forces of urbanisation and economic constriction that may ultimately bring about change. There is some evidence that such change is already occurring, given that the rate of village-to-city migration in the country increased from 17 per cent to 36 per cent in 2010.

As the Pakistani people become hungrier, the land floods again and landlords abduct another daughter, as people, women and men, pour from villages into cities and everyone must earn their keep, the tolerance of violence against women will be defeated simply and only because men will not be able to put a square meal on the table without the women’s income.

With the flailing about of another anti-violence bill, the start of another campaign and the coming of another year that will undoubtedly bring more stories of women strangled, beaten and killed, it is that change — geographical and economic rather than egalitarian and enlightened — that may eventually deliver Pakistan’s women.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.