By Maheen Irfan
Published in The Express Tribune on December 19, 2021
KARACHI: It was in May 2019 (roughly about a year before the Motorway rape incident) that author Mohammad Hanif wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian titled, ‘Pakistan: where the daily slaughter of women barely makes the news’. In the article, Hanif said that so common is murder of women in Pakistan that it’s not often considered ‘news’ and the smallest of coverage is given to such incidents, which are often buried deep inside the metro pages of Urdu newspapers. ‘Names changed, localities changed, the relationship between the murdered and her murderer changed and of course there were minor variations on how she was killed and where the body was found, but it was always there: single column, one and a half inches,’ he said in the article. He also added that so unnewsworthy were these murders that they were oftentimes the woman wasn’t even named. He also says that in 2016, more than 1,100 women were killed in Pakistan.
Similarly, when author Sanam Maher travelled to the village of Shah Sadar Din an hour away from Dera Ghazi Khan to cover the murder of social media star Qandeel Baloch she described the confounded reaction of the villagers who couldn’t understand why the murder of a woman attracted such a media frenzy. In her book, ‘The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch’, she quotes one villager: “We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown in the river. You media guys are creating a hype for nothing.”
The United Nationals defines violence against women as ‘an act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats such as acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.’
Earlier this year in June, Pakistan’s senate passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021. The bill defines the following as ‘domestic abuse’:
- Threats of divorce or second marriage
- Invasion of privacy
- Threats to cause physical pain
- Character assassination
- Willful or negligent abandonment
- Forcing or compelling a wife to cohabit with anybody other than the husband
The bill also recommended six months to upto three years in prison as punishment and upto Rs100,000 as a fine for domestic violence. The bill also says that a protection committee would be established under the Human Rights ministry and protection officers would be appointed to help people report cases of domestic abuse. Moreover, the bill also instates speedy hearings where cases are to be decided by courts within 90 days.
However, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary affairs asked the National Assembly to seek a review of the bill by the Council of Islamic Ideology and many right-wing politicians also opposed the bill. The fate of the bill, as it stands, currently remains in limbo. The opposition to the bill took place a mere weeks before the high-profile murder of Noor Mukadam. However, despite the wide scale frenzy around the murder itself and the ensuing dialogue across the country on the alarming culture of femicide in the country, the issue has done nothing to revive the bill.
In October this year, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority also banned the airing of ‘caress or hug’ scenes in television dramas, thus rendering a creation of an unbalanced relationship for its consumership. Viewers will be able to see married couples engage in emotional and physical abuse in relationships however, they will not be able to view couples express their love in healthy and natural ways – a dangerous imbalance that is bound to have a harmful psychological impact on the wide-ranging demographic of Pakistani men and women watching these television dramas.
A Silent Global Pandemic?
According to WHO, one in three women worldwide are subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. However, according to WHO, most of this violence is intimate partner violence. It estimates that nearly 27 per cent of women worldwide (one third of the female population) aged between 15 and 49 years who have been in a relationship report having been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. The prevalence of lifetime intimate partner violence ranges from 20 per cent in the Western Pacific, 22 per cent in high-income countries and Europe and 25 per cent in the WHO regions of the Americas to 33 per cent in WHO African region, 31 per cent in WHO Eastern Mediterranean region and 33 per cent in the WHO South-East Asia region. Additionally, it is reported that globally upto 38 per cent of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.
A report by Femicide Consensus reported that one woman is killed every three days in the uk and the rate of murders show ‘no signs of reducing’. The report concluded that intimate partner violence was the leading cause of death and the killings were also sexually motivated.
Why interventions are important on every level
According to a WHO report titled, ‘Violence prevention the evidence’ published in 2009 promoting gender equality critical to the prevention of violence against women. Evidence suggests that gender inequalities can increase the risk of violence by men against women. The report also states that in societies where traditionally it is believed that men have the right to control women, cause women and girls to become more vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual violence by men. Moreover, they also prevent those subjected to such violence, unable to remove themselves from the abusive situation or able to seek help or support.
According to the WHO report, school-based interventions have shown positive results in deescalating gender-based violence. The report cited Safe Dates programmes in both the United States and in Canada as examples of such interventions. Safe Date is a school and community programme targeted towards 13- to 15-year-old girls and boys. A randomized trial of the programme, which was tested against a control group, found that participants reported less psychological abuse and sexual and physical violence against their current dating partner one month after the programmed ended and four years later. The report also states that such programmes also need to be delivered in order to be effective, such programmes need to be delivered in multiple sessions over time.
Moreover, the report states that initiatives that solely focus on male peer groups have also shown changes violence-related attitudes. In one such initiative in the United states called The Men’s Programme, a video was shown to make undergraduates describing a homosexual, male-on-male rape to teach the students how it might feel to be raped. The video also made connections with male-on-female rape to promote empathy for rape survivors. The video also outlines ways on how to support survivors. A randomised controlled trial of the programme concluded that participants were significantly less likely to accept myths about rape or commit sexual assault or rape.
Unaddressed and Escalating Issue
Violence against women is continually carried out by men however, it’s also been chronically and erroneously labelled as a ‘female issue’. Research has proven that cultures that reinforce patriarchy create a hierarchy of power, which enable and validate men to use violence against women. Legislative and social interventions have shown significant results however, no meaningful action has been taken through either avenue in Pakistan. This is solely due to the fact that those in the corridors of power have chosen not to educate themselves on the issue as it doesn’t hurt their politics and making changes doesn’t directly benefit them either. The Council of Islamic Ideology exclusively comprises 12 men and yet it was left to them to decide the fate of women’s safety in the country. The opposition for women’s protection bills in the assembly has historically always been by men both liberal and right wing. If each act of violence against a woman is looked at as an isolated incident and the presiding and future governments continue to ignore the issue, women will continue to be physically and sexually violated in Pakistan, and the numbers will only escalate further. So the question remains, how long can we continue to ignore this?