By MEP Ryszard Czarnecki,
Member, European Parliament, Vice-Chairman, Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan, speaking in a Debate Organized by Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan (FOGB): A Caucus of the European Union Parliament, Brussels on November 30, 2010
On November 11, 2010, Asya Bibi was declared blasphemous and sentenced to death by a Pakistani court. As a reaction, millions around the world including pope benedict raised concern over sub-human treatment of the non-Muslims in Pakistan and demanded Asya’s immediate release. However, there are thousands of other women like Asya in Pakistan who become victim to the sectarian and chauvinist socio-political system; and yet have failed to receive attention from the international community.
Asya Bibi was implicated based on her religious background. However, majority of the Muslim women of Pakistan also become a regular victim of similar forms of persecution, which often lead to physical and mental impairment and death. In majority of the cases, both state and male relatives of the victim are found involved, which makes it almost impossible to secure a respectable status for women in Pakistan’s society.
Experts believe that violence directly contributes towards low indicators of human development including low intelligence. If today, the clergy of Pakistan accuses the women of low intelligence and calls them unfit to run the affairs of the country; they should blame themselves for it since low intelligence among the women of Pakistan is not a biological defect but a malfunction deliberately caused by the male-dominated society to enslave the women. Lack of literacy and awareness, ensuing in the wrong interpretation of Islamic scriptures, has created a society where women often live like a pariah. In the name of upholding Islamic principles and moral values, the male-dominant illiterate society often forces the women to remain secluded within the four walls of their homes and subjugated to their men folk. Many customs including honor killing which are adopted by men as social norms basically encourages crime against women.
Pakistan is signatory to the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women which guarantees equality for both genders in the society. Yet more than seventy percent of Pakistani women continue to face violence in the form of injuries, death, honor killing, forced nude display in public, molestation, acid burns, mutilation, rape, social boycott, harassment during professional duties, denial of monetary assistance, and discrimination in educational and health institutions and businesses. Women in many parts of the country continue to face death on mere suspicions of having illicit relation or daring to challenge the norms of the man-dominated society. The situation has compelled many women to abandon education and professions to save their lives.
Between January and June of 2010, there was a thirteen-percent increase in the rate of violence against women in Pakistan. In Sindh alone, there were seventeen cases of honor killing in the first two months of 2010. Since then, a seventeen percent increase in such incidents has been recorded. According to the government sources, more than 9,400 cases of crime against women were registered in 2009 which was a twenty-percent increase compared to the year 2008. In 2009, village authorities decreed burying four women alive in Balochistan who wanted to marry the men of their choice. Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, which is considered the most liberal part of the country, saw sixty-one-percent increase in the crime against women in 2009. These statistics do not include thousands of other cases, which have failed to receive due attention. Yet Pakistani rulers claim an improvement in the conditions of women.
Women who want to escape wife-beating are accused of immorality and subjected to mutilation of nose, eyes, lips and ears. Some are beaten to death and others are subjected to acid burns. According to Ansar Burney Trust, every seventh day, a woman becomes victim of acid attack in Pakistan. In 2009, acid attack incidents increased by nineteen percent compared to the previous year. The wives who fail to pay adequate dowry to the bride groom are subjected to beating and gas-cylinder accidents, often causing third degree burns and subsequent death.
Rape, molestation and sexual harassment are also common and 2009 returned a ten percent increase in such crimes. In many cases, victims of rape and molestation were subjected to double rape by police and judges as they approached the authorities for justice. Ansar Burney Trust reports that eight women including four minors are raped every day in Pakistan. Further, more than fifty percent of the married women were subjected to marital rape in 2009. Some regional courts and village authorities decree sexual violence against women, for instance gang rape, to get even with the male relatives of the victim who are implicated in judicial cases. Aurat Foundation states that abduction and kidnapping contributed towards almost one-third of the total criminal cases against women between January and June of 2010. Similarly, a seventeen percent increase in the rate of sexual harassment at work site was reported in 2009, including complaints made by female members of the parliament. Women also face discrimination in the educational institutions. For instance, of the total children denied the right to education in Pakistan, seventy percent are girls, numbering around seven million.
Pakistani state must honor the UN Declaration to eliminate all kinds of violence against women in public and private life. The rulers must make efforts to enhance education on gender equality. Police and judiciary should be reformed suiting to the needs of women. Customs like dowry should be declared illegal. Media can play a positive role and progressive religious scholars should be given more time on radio and television in this regard.
My conversation will be incomplete without mentioning status of women in a region called Gilgit-Baltistan, which remains in Pakistan’s occupation since 1947. Recently, we have registered a non-profit organization in Brussels with the name of Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan (FOGB) to alleviate the problems mentioned above. Gilgit-Baltistan is part of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, which continues to experience human rights violations under the oppressive Pakistani military. Pakistan’s destructive policies have hurt the region and female segment of the society suffers the most from these injustices.
According to the World Bank estimates, number of girls in government-sponsored schools in Gilgit-Baltistan covers less than five percent of the total female population of Gilgit-Baltistan. To date, majority of the valleys including Gultari, Saltoro, Thalay, Braldo, Basha, Ghizer, Yasin, Nagar, Ishkomen, Darel and Tangir lack government girl-schools. Likewise, Shigar district with eighty thousand inhabitants has access to two, while Rongdo district with sixty-thousand has access to one government girl-school. Further, there is only one girl-college for the entire half a million population of Baltistan. The quality of education in government schools is very poor. The two million people of Gilgit-Baltistan still await their first teacher-training institute which would help the educators improve their knowledge-base and required skills to perform their duty in an optimum manner. The situation, in which the occupying government has conveniently absolved itself of the educational needs of Gilgit-Baltistan, has forced many non-profit organizations to incept private girl-schools.
Like education, health sector catering to the needs of the women folks of Gilgit-Baltistan also lacks attention. For instance, the entire region of Gilgit-Baltistan with over two-million people is dependent on a single gynecologist. Further, Baltistan with more than half a million population has access to one female hospital ward. Health facilities in Diamer and Ghizer districts also mirror the situation in Baltistan. To date, hundreds of women with acute illnesses and pregnancy complications have lost lives to arduous travel on the dirt tracks and sometimes on horse-back rides, as it takes several hours to reach urban-based medical centers.
The women have also experienced their personal liberties severely curtailed with the advent of terrorism and militancy in Gilgit-Baltistan. It was for the first time in November of 2009, when pro-Taliban elements in Diamer district banned women from casting vote during a regional election. It was also for the first time in the history of Gilgit-Baltistan, when two women were killed in Gilgit in September of 2010 in the name of honor killing; a barbaric tradition practiced in Pakistan. This reflects on the ability of the terrorists and Pakistani settlers to impose their norms on the natives, who are known as peace-loving Sufis and cheerful mountain-people to the outside world. Unless Pakistani illegal settlers are stopped by the international community from such excesses, Gilgit-Baltistan will fall victim to similar norms which are destroying Pakistan. The natives of Gilgit-Baltistan have lived in amicable conditions for thousands of years without promoting such prejudices. The incident of honor killing and regular incidents of harassment by Pakistani occupying forces and police are anathema that needs immediate attention.
The security forces present in Gilgit-Baltistan commit heinous crimes against the native women with impunity. Different methods of harassment used by the military personnel are verbal abuse, physical torture and sexual molestation. Police and security forces act as sexual predators and use rape as a psychological weapon to defile honor, induce fear and thereby control the souls and bodies of the natives. This way they terrorize, demean and psychologically defeat the natives and intimidate, humiliate and punish those who challenge their illegal presence. Many military garrisons in Gilgit-Baltistan are situated amidst residential areas enabling easy intrusion. Soldiers are encouraged by their superiors to defile local socio-cultural and religious customs, who often intrude into neighborhoods where women observe strict religious veiling or Hijab. Incidents in which local women pelted stones at Pakistani security forces in Gamba Skardo in 2001 speaks for a stern reaction from the natives against the occupying force. Abduction of teenage girls by militants and Pakistani settlers is also common. Till now, more than hundred girls have been subjected to involuntary disappearance in district Ghizer alone.
The women living in the villages along the Line of Control especially in the districts of Astore, Kharmang and Gangche are regularly victimized by the security forces, militants and police authorities. In the past, hundreds of women have been molested, raped, abducted and subjected to enforced disappearances by either the Pakistani military personnel or the terrorists who arrive in Gilgit-Baltistan to pursue Jihad. Recently in August of 2010, a military officer was reprimanded by the villagers for harassing the women. Similarly, the people of Gojal also had to confront a military officer in April of 2009 for similar reasons. On May 26, 2006, thousands of people were forced to come on the streets protesting against Pakistani security forces when soldiers shot and killed two women from Astore. In November of 2009, the women of Gilgit-Baltistan came on the streets once again demanding withdrawal of occupying troops and accusing them of harassment, persecution and extra judicial killings. Their demand resonates with the United Nations resolutions of 1948 and 1949, asking Pakistan to withdraw from the region so that human rights violations could be curtailed and a just solution to the Kashmir dispute could be found.
Unfortunately, the culprits within the ranks of army personnel and secret service agents, who consider themselves above the law, enjoy police protection. The fact that both police and military collude and refuse to register cases obliterate much needed evidence leading to lack of justice for the rape victims.
Solution to these problems lies in the withdrawal of Pakistani security forces and the terrorists who without any fear of accountability for their actions roam free in the villages along the Line of Control and harass women. Further, local customs evolved over thousands of years which support the egalitarian social norms and cater to the needs and choices of the native women must be incorporated into the school syllabi to extend protection to the women. The rulers need to play a greater role in providing financial support to educational institutions and establish universities for girl-students. A literate mother contributes towards the development of the entire family. The society can achieve sustainable development only after female education and health facilities receive immediate attention from the government.
As member of the European Parliament (EP), which passed a resolution with an overwhelming majority demanding political and economic reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan, I believe that the reforms will fail to show results if women, who constitute for more than half of the total population of Gilgit-Baltistan, are denied equal rights, especially an equal access to education and health facilities. Denial of rights and justice to women means that extremism and terrorism is on rise in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is alarming for the western communities. I would ask the EP to ensure that Pakistan improves the living standards of the women in Gilgit-Baltistan before expecting any grants and development funds. As Vice-Chairperson of Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan (FOGB) I humbly announce to reserve a financial grant for the educational and health needs of the women of Gilgit-Baltistan. Further, a special fund will also be reserved for the rehabilitation of those women of Gilgit-Baltistan, who have been victimized by the police and security forces.