Perils of womanhoodI - A Rehman - Thursday, January 27, 2011

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SEVERAL recent incidents have once again highlighted Pakistani women’s growing vulnerability to violence, and the need to devise and implement a crash programme to reverse this trend.

In a village near Bahawalpur, a 20-year-old girl is alleged to have been electrocuted on the orders of a panchayat. She is said to have been punished by her family for wanting to marry a young man of her own choice. The accused have denied holding any panchayat and claimed that the girl committed suicide on the eve of her parentally arranged marriage.

While it is for a court to decide which of the two versions is correct, some uncontested facts need to be noted. The victim had gone to Karachi with a cousin and they had decided to get married. Her father and some other family members prevented her from exercising her legal right to marry, brought her back home and plotted to marry her off against her will. The crime committed by them is obvious. They cannot escape responsibility for her death either, whether she was killed for exercising her right to choose her spouse or whether she ended her life in order to escape a forced marriage. The only difference is that their punishment will depend on the circumstances of the victim’s death.

The government should not wait until the conclusion of legal proceedings before initiating action to rid the people of the menace of unauthorised forums of justice. Regardless of the authenticity or otherwise of the allegation against a panchayat in this case, it is no secret that such assemblies have been punishing people for a variety of offences and some of the punishments, such as ordering a woman to be gang-raped or forcing the accused to offer small girls in marriage to complainant parties, fall in the category of heinous atrocities.

Further, the illegal activities of panchayats are not limited to Punjab. No part of the country is free from this evil though it is more widespread, and more definitely institutionalised, in Sindh. Much has been written in condemnation of Sindh’s tribal jirgas but the institution has survived despite the Sindh High Court’s verdict holding it to be absolutely illegal and calling for the prosecution of all those who are responsible for holding jirgas or enforcing their decisions.

An important factor that has helped the panchayat/jirga to survive is their defence by the landed aristocracy that continues to have a strong hold over members of legislatures. But if our women are to be protected against crimes committed by the so-called councils of the community’s elders, some effective legal mechanisms will have to be put in place.

An ideal solution will be the adoption of a tougher law. If for any reason this is impossible or if it is considered desirable to legalise a revised form of the panchayat/jirga, then the representatives of the provincial governments should sit together in the Council of Common Interests or elsewhere to adopt identical laws on the subject. However, the powers of the panchayat/jirga should be limited to mediation and conciliation and they must not be allowed to issue or enforce penal awards.

Effective legislation is also required to prevent the killing of girls, both before and after birth. The urgency of this matter has been underscored by two fresh reports.

First came the report that a man in Khanewal punished his wife when an ultrasound examination of her pregnancy revealed the female identity of the foetus. She was beaten up and tied to her cot with ropes. Her pregnancy was in an advanced stage and she delivered the child on her way to her mother’s house after the police had secured her release.

Then came the Edhi Foundation’s disclosure that the number of newborns thrown on garbage dumps or in sewers has been going up year after year and that nine out of every 10 victims are girls.

These two reports confirm what has been suspected for many years: that infanticide contributes, to some extent at least, to the women-to-men ratio in the country’s population being 100 to 114. And it has rightly been pointed out that the infant murder/disposal figures relate only to major cities. The extent of the havoc being caused by criminals of the worst order in the countryside has not been assessed.

These disclosures call for a series of measures. First, the government must examine the Indian law that bars medical practitioners from disclosing the sex of the foetus to anyone, because this can lead to a forced abortion, and see whether a similar law or an improved version can be adopted in Pakistan. Secondly, the police must be made to realise their duty to probe each case of an infant thrown dead or alive in a public place. Most of the culprits may be able to escape detection but the trial of a few for infanticide, or even the publicity of the hunt for the killers, should deter at least some criminal-minded elements.

However, infanticide and interference with women’s right to choose their spouses are social evils that cannot be eradicated by laws alone, however efficiently they may be drafted or enforced. The reasons why some of the relevant laws are not honestly enforced also need to be explored.

The real issue is the denial of women’s right of control over their bodies, especially their reproductive functions, and their right to equality with men with regards to entering into marriage by free choice and raising a family. While laws and their full implementation are necessary to protect women against any abuse of their rights, much more effective will be a well-planned movement to bridge the gender gap in educational institutions and remove the barriers to women’s right to mobility, inheritance, work, equal wage for equal work, ownership of assets, and due share in decision-making. The need for launching an initiative such as this has been heightened by the extremists’ increasing attacks on women’s rights, especially on girls’ right to education and choice of career.

The first objective should be the finalisation of plans by provincial governments for the fulfilment of their duty, under the new Article 25-A of the constitution, to achieve the target of universal primary education by 2015, if not earlier. Special efforts must be made to close the gap between the enrolment of girls and boys. At the same time the task of realising the Millennium Development Goals III — achieving gender parity and women’s empowerment — may be assigned to special task forces.

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