Unsafe spaces for Women

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a pervasive issue in Pakistan, with many violent forms such as rape, sexual harassment, child and forced marriages, domestic violence, and murder being considered normal for desi households where males are taken as the perfect and ideal authority. Women are not safe in their own homes, working, or public places.

The gravity of the matter needs to be seriously considered by acknowledging its presence. Recent incidents in 2023 include a father killing his 19-year-old daughter on suspicion of having an affair, a young woman being shot dead by her brother in Karachi’s upscale DHA neighbourhood, a man who recently returned from Dubai killing his wife over a petty domestic dispute in Wazirabad, Punjab, a newlywed woman being shot dead by her father in City Courts, Karachi, where she had arrived to record a statement confirming that she had entered a free-will marriage, a man opening fire at his ex-wife in City Courts Karachi after the hearing of a child custody case, and a 20-year-old woman being burnt alive in the name of ‘honour’ in Jhang, Punjab.

According to the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), around 63,000 cases of GBV had been reported in Pakistan over the past three years as of March 8, 2023. Of these cases, 80% were related to domestic violence and some 47% pertained to domestic rape wherein married women experienced sexual abuse. However, according to the US-based National Library of Medicine, only 3.2% of women who experience domestic violence actually report it in Pakistan. In rural areas, the prevalence of physical violence against women is 56%, while the lifetime prevalence in urban environments is 57.6% physical, 54.5% sexual, and 83.6% psychological.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that around 19 million girls in Pakistan are married off before the age of 18 and 4.6 million before 15. Married girls are often forced into dangerous pregnancies at a young age and pregnancies that are too closely spaced. Women from religious minority communities remain particularly vulnerable to forced marriage.

Women generally feel discouraged from reporting incidents or filing cases due to a lack of female officers at police stations, the generally unfriendly and hostile environment in our policing system, the high fees demanded by lawyers for filing suits, and the prospect of lengthy court proceedings. A strong perception still prevails among a large section of the police and judiciary that domestic violence is a private matter and should be resolved at the family level.

Several laws on domestic violence, honour killings, harassment at workplaces and early child marriages are in place; however, implementation and application of these laws remains weak or negligible. The basic challenges are addressing a lack of awareness about the relevant laws; societal acceptance of GBV; prevalent patriarchal mindset; lack of support from society and state in the form of shelter homes; provision of legal aid; as well as stigma attached to women who refuse to live in abusive relationships.

The existing laws need to be implemented in their true spirit by building capacity in law enforcement agencies, particularly the police; sensitising the judiciary; lawyers; media; and health professionals on GBV. There should be well-planned and well-organised awareness campaigns for education and sensitisation of both women and men on GBV as well as on laws made to counter it.

A grievances and redressal mechanism at district level must be established covering legal aid and helpline services; facilitation in complaint registration; protection; rehabilitation of victims; as well as improvement in condition of shelter homes particularly Darul Amans. The Constitution guarantees right to life and dignity to citizens; women as equal citizens of Pakistan are entitled to protection of these rights by state.

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