March 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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International Women’s Day in Pakistan—
Legislation Is Essential but Not Enough,
Especially if It Is Rarely Implemented

Asian Human Rights Commission

Victims of acid-throwing incidents, as shown here in the
documentary film Saving Face directed by Sharmeen
Obaid-Chonoy and Daniel Junge, are reflections of the
deep roots of patriarchy in Pakistan that permit and
excuse violence against women.
(Photo from
Every year this day, March 8, represents a suitable occasion to remember the battles fought and the recognition gained toward respecting the rights of women, but above all, it is a moment of reflection concerning all those achievements not yet acquired. This year in particular the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women has been scheduled between March 4 and 15 at the United Nations headquarters in New York with the issue of the prevention and the elimination of violence against women as the main focus area of the session.

In many Asian countries, the status and the safety of women are still largely affected by gender-based violence and discrimination, and Pakistan still ranks among the countries in Asia, and the world, with one of the worst human rights records that affects the condition of women significantly.

Pakistani women are subjected to physical and verbal offences; psychological and sexual abuse; rape, including marital rape; assaults; forced conversions and forced marriages; and honor killings. In the majority of cases, the perpetrators are male family members. This experience of women in the country is a result of the extremely conservative and patriarchal mindset embedded in society that cuts across social classes. Such abuses as battery and murder occur among upper middle class families as well as among working class people. Even a comparison between the trend in urban and rural areas proves that numbers are not that different in big cities. The reasons behind the perpetuation of discrimination and violence against women of any age are to be found in religious fundamentalism, in the conservative, sexist mindset prevalent even in urban areas, in the very feeble rule of law and in widespread corruption within the civil policing system.

Women’s freedom of speech, movement and choice is extremely restrained and rests in the hands of fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins. Women are seen as inferior humans, second-class citizens and mainly as a male commodity. Their opinion is of no one’s interest or concern, and the integrity of their body is out of their control. Rape is a customary practice, not only to satisfy male instincts, but also to regulate tribal disputes; for by violating the enemies’ daughters, sisters and wives, tribes “teach” their opponents a lesson. In female chastity lies the honor of a family, and raping a woman is a powerful tool of offence and revenge. When the concept of honor is taken to its extreme and is combined with the custom of blaming the victim, non-consensual sexual intercourse is considered paradoxically the same as premarital or non-marital sex, and this perception further compromises the safety of women.

Annually, Pakistan counts hundreds of women that are victims of honor killings, most of which occur on the simple basis of suspicion or because of a minor event which is instead seen as extremely shameful behavior. Women have been, and still are, killed in the name of honor because they went out without their husband’s approval, because they did not agree to marry the person chosen by their father or because they have been suspected of being in love with a man professing another faith. Often, behind the decision of proceeding with such murders, there are the verdicts of the jirga, the traditional assembly of elders that dispenses sentences according to Islamic law and that, although declared illegal in 2005, people still keep consulting and trusting.

The observance of basic human rights—the right to life, right to safety, freedom, equality, health, etc.—continues to be systematically violated in Pakistan. The mentality of blame to the detriment of the victim, together with pervading inequality and discrimination, permeate through all spheres of society, from the private life to the public level. The protection of women from unequal treatment and the prevention of violence are successful when forces from the top and from the bottom of society meet at the middle ground of justice, fairness and tolerance. In Pakistan, none of these fundamental principles seems to inspire equality in either personal relationships or in public relations.

Legislation is an essential factor in remedying the violent experiences of women. Pakistan ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996. Later the government issued the Protection of Women Act in 2006 and the Criminal Law Act in 2009. The Acid Crime Prevention Bill and the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act are still pending in Parliament. These acts are all supposed to be efficient legislative tools to protect women from assault, rape, discrimination in the workplace and other forms of violence. However, laws are too often enacted to remain in writing only, and it is very hard to see their proper and effective implementation.

Efficient legislation requires strong political will, which appears to be lacking in Pakistan. The insubstantial enforcement of the rule of law compromises the efficacy of many institutions, police bodies in particular, where the lack of training and gender sensitization among the officers, the habit of abusing the victims themselves as well as the pandemic level of corruption makes it difficult for women to even have their cases filed. The discouragement, or often the refusal, to proceed with the completion of the first information report (FIR) makes the police officers complicit in the perpetuation of violence, and, together with the fear of reporting for many victims, it is responsible for the inaccuracies in the national statistics concerning these crimes.

If cases dealing with gender-based violence eventually come to the attention of the court, women have to face the impudence of judges, who often treat them with inequality and disrespect. Listening to the victims and assisting them in a professional way is not only required to efficiently support those women who have experienced violence and discrimination, but it is also an indispensable way in which to raise the issue, talk about the problem and stress its gravity in the public domain.

The silence of the victims and the “invisibility” of the survivors, together with impunity, leave women in a condition of abandonment and increase the risk that more women—and girls—can go through the same torment.

Legislation is essential, but not enough, especially if it is rarely implemented. A cultural change must also occur.

A violence-free world is a utopia which even the most developed countries are struggling to achieve. However, circumstances can be sensibly improved if tolerance, understanding, acceptance, innovation and open-mindedness accompany people in their private spheres and governments in their mandates.

* The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is a regional non-governmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984. More information is available on AHRC’s web site at <>.