Violence in Pakistan: A Gendered Perspective

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by Zainab Mustafa, Research Associate, RSIL


Pakistan has been ranked as the third most dangerous place in the world for women.[1] Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Pakistan has its roots in a patriarchal social structure under which women are considered inferior to men and are viewed as property.[2] Illiteracy, ignorance and blind faith in clergy provide a fertile ground for the maintenance of the status quo, and encourages this extreme form of patriarchal society.[3] This issue is further compounded by discriminatory legislation and a dysfunctional criminal justice system.[4]

Acts of violence committed against women including, inter alia, sexual violence, intimate partner or spousal abuse (domestic violence), sexual harassment, harmful traditional practices (forced marriage, vanni, karo kari), and other discriminatory practices based on gender all fall within the ambit of GBV.[5] Over 10,000 cases of GBV were reported in Pakistan in 2014.[6]  According to official figures released by the Ministry of Human Rights, 8,648 human rights violations were reported in the country between January 2012 and September 15, 2015. These included 90 incidents of acid burning, 72 of burning, 535 cases of violence against women, 860 honour killings and 344 rape/gang rapes, 268 sexual assault/harassment, and 481 of domestic violence.[7]

Challenges faced

Despite this there is no specific federal law prohibiting domestic violence.[8] Women who have tried to report abuse have faced grave challenges, with the Police and judges hesitating to take action, deeming such matters private home affairs. Police officers often use the method of mediation to settle domestic disputes to save women the shame of going through courts, which does not always result in justice.[9] Women that wanted to take legal action were told to lodge an FIR in an environment which they described as “scary” and “confusing” and in some cases the process took between 3 to 6 months. Moreover, none of the women reported that they had been given any safety planning measures by the police.[10]

Rape victims are perceived as possessing immoral character and therefore blameworthy for getting raped. Some victims are pressurized to withdraw their complaint or settle out of court. The Station Chief of a busy Lahore police station told the Human Rights Watch that the crime of rape does not exist in Pakistan and that women normally consent to intercourse, subsequently lying to incriminate their male partners.[11] Judicial bias also sometimes leads to verdicts that penalize women. The International Crisis Group reported, “While researching on knowledge, attitudes and practices on rape, I was shocked to hear a [lower court] judge in Punjab say that if it was a gang rape, it could be considered zina-bil-jaber (rape). But if there was only one aggressor, then it was zina (consensual extramarital sex).”[12] According to reports, some rape victims have been forced to marry their attackers. Furthermore, prosecution in rape cases take years and is rarely successful.[13] In a paper submitted to CEDAW[14] it was noted that a rape trial can continue for a time period of between one and a half years to 10 years.[15] Moreover, medical personnel in many areas do not have the expertise required for such complicated prosecutions and do not gather evidence on time leading to acquittals.[16] The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has stated that less than four per cent of Pakistan’s rape cases result in a conviction.[17]

Legislative Measures and Lacunae in the Law

Pakistan has taken a significant number of steps to counter GBV through adopting legislation on the subject. However, the laws lack implementing measures and do not offer sufficient safeguards. Shelter homes for women facing violence have also been established in Pakistan but many of these lack basic facilities and are very few in number compared to the women who are seeking refuge. Reportedly, patterns of abuse have also emerged at these shelter homes where women found their movements strictly restricted and were also pressured to return to their abusers.[18]

The Government has established police stations for women staffed by female police officers to offer victims of violence a safe place to register complaints and file charges. However, there are very few in number and are often under staffed. Furthermore, the police often lack the expertise to handle GBV cases.[19] Evidence collection after rape cases is particularly poor which often results in the perpetrator going free.[20] Since 2006, National Police Academy’s curriculum includes a training module to increase gender sensitivity. This by itself is insufficient if it is not coupled with accountability for failure to investigate crimes.[21]

The Ministry of Women Development (MoWD) and the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), are responsible for the formulation of policies to eliminate GBV.[22] In 2006, the Gender Crime Cell was set up in the National Police Bureau to collect data on cases of GBV, and provide policy advice to the Government on particular cases.[23] The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2004 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) outlawed karo kari, siyah kari and similar other customs,[24] however, the law leaves space for gender biases, which results in lenient sentences and the protection of perpetrators from maximum penalties.[25] An estimated 70 per cent of perpetrators go unpunished.[26] The Qisas and Diyat Ordinances are applied to negotiate compensation with the perpetrator. Furthermore, the police have in some cases been reported to be complicit with perpetrators of honour crimes.[27]

The Protection of Women (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2006 has amended law governing rape in Pakistan. However, the law is poorly implemented and reportedly, police has also been implicated in some cases.[28] It has been reported that police have sometimes abused or threatened victims, especially in cases where they have received bribes.[29]

The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices [Criminal Law Amendment] Act, 2011 is considered ambiguous and there is a lack of clarity surrounding its application amongst police officers and public prosecutors. Furthermore, the law does not allow an arrest without a warrant or a court order.[30] A study conducted by Aurat Foundation in 2011 revealed that most police officers and lawyers were unaware of the existence of the AWP Act 2011 and that no trainings had been held for law enforcement officials.[31]

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2009 was unfortunately not passed by the Senate, accentuating the difficulty surrounding passing legislation related to women.[32] Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab have all passed laws against domestic violence, including other pro-women legislation such as the Punjab Women Protection Authority Act 2017, the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women Act 2015, and the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013.

However, laws by themselves cannot successfully safeguard rights. The frighteningly high official figures released by the Ministry of Human rights is testament to that. Laws have to be accompanied with implementing measures and for most of the pro-women laws promulgated, the implementing and monitoring mechanisms are still pending.