Pakistan remains exclusionary, unjust, unsafe and violent for most of its 101 million women.Studies reveal that 60 percent to 70 percent of women suffer some form of abuse in Pakistan and about 5,000 women are killed annually from domestic violence in the country, with thousands of other women made disabled. Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, the country ranks 153 out of 156 countries, and a recent Human Rights Watch report found that incidents of domestic violence increased by 200 percent last year, worsening after coronavirus lockdowns began in March 2020. A Karachi-based organisation War Against Rape estimated that less than 3% of rape cases lead to convictions.The latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey estimated that 28 % of women in Pakistan have “experienced physical violence” by the age of 50. Since domestic violence in Pakistan is an issue shrouded in secrecy and shame, these figures are likely a gross under-estimation. So with no real national data, the full scale of Pakistan’s violence against women remains murky. But according to one estimate less than two per cent of women who experience violence seek help from the police in Pakistan,1 so the scale of the VAW in Pakistan can not even be imagined!Rooted in the patriarchal, feudal, and tribal value systems, many of its forms are so firmly entrenched in Pakistani culture that they are ignored, condoned, or not even recognized as violence by the larger sections of the society.
There is the horrific case of 27-year-old Noor Muqaddam, who was brutally tortured and beheaded to that of Ayesha Ikram, of a TikTok creator, who was harassed and groped on the country’s Independence Day by more than 400 men on the grounds of one of the country’s major national monuments, the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, VAW has reached epidemic proportions in Pakistan. And in all the cases there is a spine chilling apathy of the LEAs towards the victims. In September 2020, when a mother ran out of gas while driving her two young children on a highway, two men raped her—and one of Pakistan’s most powerful police officers blamed her for inviting the crime by having driven at night. In 2016, then-law student Khadija Siddiqi was stabbed by the son of an influential lawyer. Her attacker was convicted and released from prison before completing his five-year sentence. While cases of VAW make headlines every few years, their frequency has increased manifold in the last couple of years. Cases of violence against women from lower socioeconomic classes and from provinces other than Punjab, which has historically been the most economically and politically dominant province, rarely garner national attention. Violence against women is endemic in Pakistan. But majority of cases of sexual harassment and gender-based violence go unreported because of victim-blaming attitudes by police officers in pakistan.
For instance the case of a Pashtun woman in Khaisor, a village in the former tribal areas of Waziristan, who was harassed by security forces, with the details of the case surfacing on social media in 2019. This case received very little attention, both from feminist activists and the mainstream media, due to the gap between women in urban centres and those in rural and remote areas.
Domestic Violence is most widespread and takes the form of physical, mental and emotional abuse. Rape remains the commonest form of violence against women, though only a fraction gets reported or prosecuted because of the shame attached to the victim. According to a report by Oxfam, 80 percent of the women in Pakistan experience violence within their homes.
Women who have been fighting against violence and Pakistan’s patriarchal system have faced attacks and abuse and been slapped with false blasphemy and vulgarity charges. Progress on women’s rights is still blocked by religious conservative groups, which often work in tandem with the Pakistani state. The organisers of Aurat March, the annual women’s march to fight for women’s rights, have faced harassment by religious groups and the police. An organiser of the march, who had eight different police cases filed against her, which were later dismissed by the court, and requested to remain anonymous, said: “The government must consider this a national crisis. I really hope the government, after all these incidents, will stop blaming victims and terming them isolated incidents. It should engage with the women’s movement on the rising violence against women in the country.”2
There are several disparities in the country’s existing social and legal structure,ranging from private to public life, and these disparities have made women vulnerable to violence and deprivations. Pakistan’s criminal justice system is discriminatory, and routinely stigmatizes victims of violence and does not provide efficient support for them. The government passed a new anti-rape ordinance in December 2020,3 promising harsher punishments like chemical castration for perpetrators and speedier trial of rape cases through special courts. As vital as these measures can be, the nation’s response still fails to move to prevention by addressing the causes of violence against women. However the attitudes have shown no sign of change. Take for instance prime minister, Imran Khan, suggestion that the rise in rape and assault cases was to be blamed on how women dressed and behaved. “If a woman is wearing very few clothes it will have an impact on the men unless they are robots,” said Khan in an interview in June. “If you raise temptation in society to a point – and all these young guys have nowhere to go – it has a consequence in the society.” In the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, governed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, official recently issued guidelines ordering girls to wear the veil or abaya.
The exclusion of women in Pakistan’s social, political and economic institutions renders them more vulnerable to violence. The literacy rate among girls and women is 22 percent lower than men.4 Women are 49 percent of Pakistanis, yet form only about 22 percent of the country’s labor force and receive only 18 percent of its labor income.5 Women hold only 5 percent of senior leadership positions in the economy. Women vote much less often in both rural and urban areas, and women form only 20 percent of the parliament. Women are less than 2 percent of the police force and are severely under-represented in the country’s superior courts. 6
Pakistani society’s patriarchal mindsets reinforce gender disparities. Inevitably, these mindsets extend to political and state institutions. The police official’s blaming of the woman raped on the highway reflects the systemic misogyny embedded throughout state institutions and the political environment. Thus, even though federal and provincial legislatures have passed laws to bar child marriage, workplace harassment, domestic violence, “honor” killings and acid attacks against women, they remain largely unenforced. Farzana Bari, another prominent women’s rights activist, believes the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in Pakistani society are responsible for the problem. “No government has ever tried to put an end to this mindset.”7 Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) in its report has found that there is a higher rate of acquittal or a lighter sentence in honour crimes.
Women often withdraw the cases due to social pressures. Otherwise, the cases remain pending in courts for years, resulting in little outcomes. The Sarah Zaman of War Against Rape (WAR) stated in June 2019 ‘… the conviction rate in rape cases in Punjab is hardly 10%. “In 74% of the cases, witnesses seem to have withdrawn out of fear,” she pointed out, deploring that the lack of witness protection mechanisms was the underlying cause. This is evident from a recent case. In July 2021 a video of four persons holding a couple at gunpoint, forcing them to strip and then beating them up had gone viral on social media. The complainant couple has now retracted her statement against the accused and informed the trial court that she did not wish to pursue the case.
While the suffering of Pakistan’s women is anguishing, this extreme inequity in the world’s fifth most populous nation should concern moralists as well as foreign policy realists for the simple reason that greater inclusion and equality of women make the world more peaceful for all. The victim is clearly scared for her safety and law enforcement has failed in providing her adequate assurances in terms of support and justice.
1 Building trust: Pakistan police address barriers to women’s access to criminal justice | UN Women – Asia-Pacific https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/news-and-events/stories/2021/06/pakistan-police-address-barriers-to-womens-access-to-criminal-justice
2 Hundreds of men in Pakistan investigated over mass sexual assault on woman | Pakistan | The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/19/hundreds-of-men-in-pakistan-investigated-over-sexual-assault-caught-on-tiktok
7 Violence against women on the rise in Pakistan | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.09.2019