Gender based disparities worst in Pakistan

(Edited text of two statements issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission: AHRC-STM-043-2010 and AHRC-STM-041-2010)

Physical and sexual violence, honor killings, forced marriages and structural inequalities within society make Pakistan one of the worst countries in erms of the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2009. Pakistan ranks 132 out of 134 countries, and its ranking among Asian countries is also low. In terms of economic empowerment, it stood at 132, health at 128 and political empowerment at 55. Clearly the situation is worsening, as its ranking was 127 in 2008, which was also Asia’s worst ranking in terms of the gender gap.

Although the ‘international women’s day’ originated as a day in which women are reminded of the battles they have fought, the achievements gained, and the small but certain steps taken towards equality and empowerment, there is little doubt that the road ahead is long and bumpy. While the day honors the rights women acquired over years of struggle, Pakistani women have almost nothing to celebrate. Their rights and safety are continuously curtailed by repressive laws and customs. The government’s paltry efforts have done nothing to improve the structural inequalities and violence they suffer. Moreover, their low status is entrenched in society’s patriarchal and feudal mindset.

Laws have been issued to tackle violence against women, such as the Protection of Women Act, 2006 or the Criminal Law Act, 2009. The latter provides protection to working women from sexual advances and intimidation at their workplace. The 2006 law protects women from abduction and rape among other things, and provides for the punishment of such offences. It still fails to fully protect women however, by not recognizing marital rape or by severely punishing non-marital sex for instance.

On 26 January 2010, a bill regarding acid violence was submitted to the National Assembly. This marks the beginning of a long legislative process. Furthermore, without strong political will—so far non-existent—it will take considerable time before a law is successfully adopted and enforced. Until now, most cases of acid attacks have not seen significant actions taken against the perpetrators, nor have adequate compensation and support been granted to the victims.

Throughout 2009, thousands of cases of violence against women were reported in Pakistan. Most of the perpetrators are family members, such as a husband, a brother or a cousin. If a woman has been branded ‘kari’ (black woman) by a jirga (a tribal assembly), her husband is entitled to kill her and her alleged lover. Jirgas are illegal in Pakistan, but the rule of tradition is often more powerful than the rule of law. The number of women of all ages and backgrounds who are killed in the name of honor cannot be determined; the vast majority of these cases are unreported and only in the rarest ases are perpetrators brought to justice. Many women in Pakistan live lives circumscribed by misogynistic traditions which systematically control their bodies, their decisions and their lives.  Undocumented and unreported killings in the name of honor are often bolstered by governmental indifference, discriminatory laws and negligence on the part of Pakistan’s police force and judiciary. As Neshay Najam in ‘Honour Killings in Pakistan’ notes, “it is paradoxical that women who enjoy such a poor status in society and have no standing in family should become the focal point and a false and primitive concept of family honour, which they are expected to uphold at the expense of their inclinations and preference in matters of marriage.”

Women are beaten up, raped, tortured or even killed at home; they have to face the constant threat of sexual harassment, sexual assaults, rape and gang-rape. In Swat, 17-year-old Chand Bibi received 34 lashes in public for going out in the street with her father-in-law. A few weeks ago, Samina Khawar Hayat, a female legislator in the legislative assembly of Pakistan’s Punjab province stunned her colleagues by asking the Punjab government to amend existing laws to allow men to marry a second, third and fourth wife without the consent of first wife, whereas existing Islamic family laws in Pakistan make it mandatory for husbands to obtain permission from their first wife.

Religious minorities

Women belonging to religious minorities are particularly threatened by repressive laws, customs and religious hatred by Muslim extremists. The majority of women from Hindu and Christian communities in urban centers are employed as scavengers or sanitary workers and earn less than USD 12 per month. They are deprived of basic human rights and denied of the protection of labor laws. In rural areas they have to live in shanty towns outside Muslim dominated areas and are treated as the scheduled caste.

In the Sindh province in particular, Hindu women are direct victims of a feudal society  and work for very meager amounts. They remain in debt to loans provided by landowners for their labor in the fields. The Hindu community in this area, along the borders of India, is from different scheduled castes like Bheel, Kohli and others, and its women are subjected to abduction, rape, arbitrary arrest, torture, displacement and killings. Furthermore, most of the bonded labor in Sindh comes from the Hindu community, a century old tradition. Women suffer the most from practices of bonded labor. In the
districts of Badin, Mirpukhas, Sanghar, Umer Kot, Tharparker Hindu women are treated as slaves due to religious hatred and debts claimed by their ‘owners’.

Pakistan’s working class women, including peasants and laborers, are mostly employed in informal sectors and cannot even earn one USD a day. In the kilns, road construction, fields and domestic industries, women have no rights and are bonded. There is no question of the implementation of labor laws when it comes to women from minority groups, as they are treated as slaves.

Women from religious minority groups are of the least concern to the government as well as to civil society groups. While there is a quota of two percent employment for religious minorities in government departments, hardly any women from these groups are employed in these positions.

Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has yet to implement its provisions within society. The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the government of Pakistan to implement the CEDAW in its true spirit. All women, regardless of their religion and socio-economic status, should be treated equally according to the constitution of Pakistan.

It is clear that discrimination against women is not only a legal problem, but also a societal problem; laws are therefore not sufficient to protect women against century old traditions. Societal discrimination can be addressed only through a fundamental evolution that includes the disassembly of jirgas, the effective implementation of the rule of law in every region of the country, and the reform of the judiciary and the police to prevent impunity and condemn perpetrators, all of which requires a strong political will. Structural changes must also occur, such as a better representation of women in state and public offices. The government should also make changes in the education curriculum according to CEDAW, ensuring that hatred from the Muslim society against women from religious minorities is prevented. Furthermore the women from religious minorities should have free access to education and health facilities. The international women’s day, March 8, should be taken as an opportunity to remember the women of Pakistan and think about how their lives can be improved.