A press report comes as a rude reminder of unremitting incidence of violence against women in Punjab. As per the data collected by a well-respected women’s rights organisation, as many as 7,010 cases involving violence and another 1,707 cases of kidnapping were reported in the province during last year. Rape and gang rape numbered a whopping 1,408 while reported cases of women falling victim to the so-called ‘honour killing’ was 340 – the highest among the four provinces. That though is attributable to the fact that more than half of the country’s entire population lives in this province rather than better conditions in other parts of the country. The report goes on to note that six women were kidnapped, four raped, three committed suicide and six were murdered every single day all over Pakistan the same year.
Most of these crimes are rooted in a feudal mindset that regards women as possessions, which can be used and abused in the name of traditions or religion. Anti-women prejudices are rife not in the middle classes – usual morality keepers in any society – but in the ruling classes as well. Notably, back in 2008 when two women were buried alive near Quetta – one for wanting to marry a man of her choice and the older relative for supporting her – no less a person than a federal minister Israrullah Zehri had defended the horror saying “these are centuries-old traditions; and I will continue to defend them.” It is common practice also for village ‘jirgas’ to use small girls for settling blood feuds between men. There have been instances also wherein people paraded naked women from lesser families to heap humiliation on their male relatives. Things may be changing for the better but as the present report shows, change is painfully slow in coming.
Creditably for the PPP government it passed important pro-women laws like Protection Against Harassment at Workplace Act, 2010; Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act, 2011; and Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act, 2011. A legal loophole, however, continues to encourage people to commit the crime since ‘honour killing’ is a compoundable offence under the Qisas and Diyat laws. As it is, the murderer is always a close relative – a brother, father or an uncle – other relatives grant forgiveness. Hence it has become almost an accepted practice for male relatives to kill a woman for contracting a marriage of her choice or on suspicion of having a liaison. The honour pretext sometimes is also used to deprive a victim of her property rights. The Punjab Women Development Department recently initiated a move seeking amendment to a law that provides courts “may” punish killers pardoned under an agreement to life imprisonment, or hand them death sentence. It wants to replace the word “may” with “shall” so fear of punishment acts as deterrence for those killing women in the name of honour secure in the knowledge of being pardoned. Hopefully the effort will come to fruition despite resistance from religious elements. But laws alone will not help. In tandem with laws there is need for a general uplift programme through education and vocational training programmes so that more and more women can achieve economic self-reliance – the key to independence and dignity.