On the occasion of the Open World Conference Against War and Exploitation for a Workers’ International, convened on 30-31 October 2022, an international conference for the defence of working women’ s rights will be held on 29 October, initiated by Rubina Jamil, General Secretary of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation and Christelle Keiser, National Secretary of the POID. Below is a contribution from Rubina Jamil.
Women in Pakistan
Women in Pakistan are disadvantaged from the moment they are born. The birth of a girl is frequently met with disappointment, even anger, and the blame is usually placed on the mother. As a rule, the girl child receives less food, less access to education and less health care. As a result girls are more likely to die of childhood diseases. There are only 91 females to every 100 males in Pakistan. As one women’s organization put it:
« The girl is a liability; at an early age the girl child is made aware that she is only a temporary member of the family. Any skills she learns will benefit not her own family but her in-laws. »
School enrolment of girls is low: only 32 per cent of girls of primary-school age attend school, and only 27 per cent of older girls go to school, according to women’s groups. The drop-out rate is high. Girls are kept at home to do household chores or to look after younger children when required by the family or whenever funds are low. Only some 24 per cent of females are literate, compared to 49 per cent of males, according to government statistics. Women’s groups estimate that only 12 to 15 per cent of females can read and write.
Girls generally marry young, at around 15 years of age. The birth rate is high — women give birth to six children on average — and both infant and maternal mortality rates are also high.
12 women are raped every day on average in Pakistan, according to 2019 estimates by the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Only a small fraction of these rapes are committed by police officers. However, when law enforcement officials are seen to be able to rape women without fear of prosecution, this clearly signals to society at large that the authorities do not treat the crime seriously. Some 800 cases of rape were reported in the national press in 2017; half of them were gang-rapes and most of the victims were under-aged girls. Human rights groups estimate that only one third of cases are reported or registered with the police.
Women are usually married off by their families, in a transaction in which the « bride-price » is negotiated by the two families. The woman is then considered and treated as the property of her husband and may not defy him. Wives, it is assumed, have given permanent consent to sexual intercourse with their husbands. Marital rape intercourse without the consent of the wife is only an offence if serious injuries result. Sexual activity outside marriage is a criminal offence for which the law prescribes stringent punishments (see below).
Domestic violence against women is widespread and rarely brought to public notice or punished unless the woman dies or suffers gruesome injuries. Husbands have killed their wives and then claimed that they died when their cooking stove exploded. Some 240 cases of women dying in this way were reported in the press in 1994. Such incidents are reportedly rarely investigated thoroughly by police and postmortem examinations are rarely performed. Two hospitals in Rawalpindi – the Rawalpindi General Hospital and the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences– admitted 35 women with severe burn injuries between March and October 1994. Of the 35 women who appeared to be victims of domestic violence, 31 died. In 27 of these cases no complaint was lodged with the police; in one case, in which the victim survived, a compromise was found between victim and perpetrator and in another the husband was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. In the remaining six cases police investigations were initiated!
Human rights groups report an increasing number of instances of public humiliation of women. Women have been stripped in public, paraded through the streets, dragged by their hair or publicly sexually humiliated. The HRCP recorded 48 such cases in 2018 and 92 cases in 2018.
Women who are bonded labourers (1) are completely at the mercy of their masters. They suffer rape and gross ill-treatment of every sort. These abuses have been extensively described by journalists and human rights organizations, yet no systematic action has been taken by the authorities to stop the abuses and prevent their recurrence. In the tribal areas of Pakistan, men or families whose honour is impugned have resorted to revenge attacks and killings, particularly against women. The rape of another man’s wife is reportedly an accepted form of revenge in some areas. Again, despite well-documented evidence, the authorities allow these practices to persist.
There is a well established trade in women, even though slavery is prohibited under the Constitution. The victims are mostly poor village girls from Bangladesh who are abducted or lured with promises of employment and a better life. Once in Pakistan they are sold into prostitution or domestic servitude. According to a human rights lawyer in Karachi, some 120 to 150 Bangladesh women are sold every month. Many of these girls, some in their early teens, are arrested during raids on brothels. Most are charged with zina (extramarital sexual intercourse) or with illegal entry into Pakistan. Those who manage the slave trade and local pimps are rarely caught and charged. The cross-border trade in women is not possible without the connivance and active collaboration of police and border security forces.
A human rights organization estimated that in 2018 at least 2,500 girls and women were sold into prostitution within the country. A daily newspaper, reported the names and addresses of traffickers in the North West Frontier Province but there have apparently been no official investigations into these detailed allegations of kidnapping.
There is considerable evidence that at least at the local level, the authorities know about and connive with the trade in women. However, the government has ignored it.
Political participation by women
Women in Pakistan have the right to vote but they exercise this right only rarely and not always freely.
Although the Ex Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, was a woman, women are under-represented at all levels of government. Women’s views and issues are largely ignored in law and policy making. In the 2018 general elections the nos of women seats in the National Assembly were won by women.
A constitutional provision guaranteeing 43 seats for women in the national and provincial assemblies (but not in the Senate) lapsed in 1990 after having been in force for 10 years. In local government, women’s representation is very low.
Discrimination in law: the Zina Ordinance
The Constitution of Pakistan proclaims the rights of women. Article 25(1) states unequivocally: « All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law. » Article 25(2) goes on to say: « There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone ».
Nevertheless, several Pakistan laws explicitly discriminate against women. In some cases they allow only the evidence of men to be heard, not of women. In particular, the Evidence Act and the Zina Ordinance, one of four Hudood Ordinances promulgated in 1979, have eroded women’s rights and denied them equal protection by the law.
Women are also disadvantaged generally in the criminal justice system because of their position in society.
Human rights violations
Women in Pakistan are subjected to widespread violations of their human rights. Some of these violations are suffered almost exclusively by women, such as rape in custody. Women also face laws which directly contribute to, facilitate or invite violations of their fundamental rights.
(1) For example, to repay a debt.