November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, passed almost without a whimper in Pakistan. At a time when we are endlessly discussing the latest political gimmick, the absence of any airtime given to the large-scale lack of such a fundamental right — the protection of women against violence — is simply shameful. How can we discuss issues of national security and development, when we cannot even protect over half of our population?
This day is celebrated on November 25th because on this day, in 1960, three sisters, the Mirabel sisters, were gunned down by unknown assailants in the Dominican Republic due to their opposition to the then Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Therefore, to honour these heroic women, the United Nations General Assembly in 1999 designated this day as the day for the elimination of violence against women.
In our own country, there have been numerous Mirabel sisters, who have suffered abuse, victimisation, torture and even death. At the domestic level, abuse of women is rife. Forced marriages are still a form of torture prevalent throughout the country. Women are not considered ‘sound’ enough to make marital decisions for themselves and so a decision is made for them. This practice has been so common among Pakistani migrants to the United Kingdom that a Forced Marriages (Civil Protection) Act was enacted in 2007 by Westminster to give state protection to women who have suffered such abuse. Unfortunately, even though Pakistan is the source of almost all these forced marriages, we still have to enact a law along these lines.
That said, in recent years, Pakistan has made great strides in at least providing legal safeguards to women. The Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act 2006, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2009, and the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, have given legal support to prevent and address abuses against women, but these measures only go so far. As seen, the Protection of Women Act was immediately challenged in the Sharia Court and, even with the existence of these acts on the statute book, the real problem of enforcement remains.
Pakistan is a country where the writ of the state is fast shrinking. In such an environment, the protection of women in legal terms is simply not enough — the society needs to change. At the very basic level, women need to be treated equally — the absence of such equality is the root cause of abuse against women. The start of this equality begins at home. Recently, I was taken aback when in a household a teenage boy refused to make tea since it was a ‘girls’ job and had to be done by his sister. Similarly, another teenage boy abused his sister for standing in the doorway and looking out, when he himself had just spent hours playing cricket outside. These incidents were not about old-fashioned, conservative people, but reflected the norms prevalent even in our urban, middle classes. Hitting a woman for not making tea or for looking outside, is not too far off in this scenario.
Let us also not forget that the violence is not only physical and sexual, but also psychological. Verbally berating a woman because she is easier to target, taking away opportunities from her, domesticating her and not considering her opinion — are all ways of psychological torture which inhibit the freedom and development of women and lead to a deeply fractured society.
The United Nations estimates that nearly 70 per cent of women in the world suffer from some form of violence during their lifetime; in Pakistan perhaps the percentage is even higher. The time has come that we, at least, take a stand to stop all kinds of violence against women in our own households. December 10th is International Human Rights Day and most organisations resolve to take some ‘action’ during the 14 days from November 25th to protect women: what ‘action’ will you take?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2011.