By Haroon Mustafa Janjua
October 15, 2013
In a state where the feminine gender continues to remain in lower echelons of society, the incidents of sexual violence, rape, physical torture, maim and gang rape will only soar. Molestation of minors especially the girl child has become common in Pakistan as is evidenced by recent events in Lahore and Faisalabad. Caught up as we are in a plethora of other social issues, the gender issue remains, despite many interventions by development organisations, on the backburner as far as the list of priorities for policy makers goes.
Many instances of gender-based violence go unreported. Victims of sexual violence perpetrated within family seldom have the courage to report the matter to the proper authorities. Even when they do bring their perpetrators to the courts, both the victim and the perpetrators enter into an out of court agreement since the court proceedings are prolonged and time consuming and the results are unpredictable.
The traditional social structures and the rural-urban divide are the major obstacles that stand in the way of justice. Given the emphasis placed on eyewitness testimony in Islamic law, the utilisation of this law is negligible. The burden of proof is laid upon the innocent victim. Four virtuous individuals are required to be witness to the incident. Yet there is no foolproof mechanism to determine if the witnesses were actually pious.
The heinous crime of rape shall continue so long as the male chauvinist ethos remains unchanged in this modern era of technology. Rigid religious ideas in addition to dogmatic and opportunistic interpretations of the faith persist in the minds of children in various ways. Despite the improved political culture in the country, gender crimes are still not widely condemned by politicians and religious leaders. Several orthodox Muslim clerics do not approve of a girl’s education. In remote areas of Pakistan, particularly in the north-western parts tribal belt, the predicament of the young girls is even bleaker. They are forbidden from going to schools by tribal norms and culture.
Death by stoning a customary practice and a barbaric form of execution is reportedly on the rise in areas that escape the writ of the state. It is the most barbarous form of violence perpetuated against women in order to control and punish their sexuality and basic freedom. Two months ago, Arifa Bibi a young mother of two was stoned to death by her relatives for possessing a cell phone. On the decision of a tribal jirga, she was executed. International media raised the issue; she was buried in a desert far from her village.
Early marriage is another scourge. Each year more than 10 million girls are forced to marry as a child, which usually means an end to their education, and a life of ill-health and poverty. This is despite the fact that there is a law that prohibits child marriages in Pakistan. The evil practice continues through custom or in the guise of religious interpretation.
Society being traditionally gender-biased has always sought to instruct women to dress modestly and thus protect themselves from the lusting male. They neglect to teach the male members about this crucial issue. This ideology does not provide a concrete solution to rid society of this social menace of immense objectification of women, which is then said to be divinely ordained.
Gender inequality is rampant and commences even prior to the birth of a child. A girl child faces discrimination all through her life right from the time she is in her mother’s womb to childhood and then adolescence, and her life is marred with neglect, disadvantage and exploitation. The desire for a male child is so strong that it leads to infanticide of female babies and abortions of female foetuses after an ultrasound reveals their sex. Estimates of the number of ‘missing’ girls due to such practices vary, but are as high as 100 million. Girls are looked upon as a liability and they have to confront blatant discrimination and have access to fewer opportunities, and even their education is restricted and curtailed. Their healthcare and nutrition is undermined.
Most importantly a girl child in Pakistan should no longer be ignored, neglected and marginalised. The United Nations decision to declare October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child has particular resonance in Pakistan. According to UNICEF’s “A Report Card on Gender Parity and Primary Education”, “Investing in girls’ education is a strategy that protects the rights of all children to quality education, and is the key to all other development goals, beginning with gender equality and the empowerment of women.” In some rural areas of the country such as Kalat in the western province of Baluchistan, only nine percent of women are literate. There are also relatively fewer women with decision-making positions in government or elsewhere to bring forth an alternative view.
There is a dire need to set a social structure in moulded, neutralised and changed form. Every day we talk about women empowerment, we approve various bills and petitions within the legal framework for granting justice to vulnerable sections of society. All this would be in vain until we truly rethink the issue. Awareness needs to increase at all levels to consider women as an equal citizen of the state, within culturally acceptable framework penury to be formally addressed in public dealing institutions mainly police.
It is all about overcoming attitudes more than anything else. A woman’s place is still perceived to be the home, and therefore, a girl’s education is seen as less important than her brother’s.
Their voice needs to be heard and amplified. The current outrage in Pakistan needs to be translated into new girl-focused policies and action. It is not enough to weep. It is the time to act.
Haroon Mustafa Janjua is a freelance