Adolescent girls’ plight in Pakistan — by Mehr Qureshi

There is no specific provision on incest in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and police, prosecutors and judges often have dismissive and condemning attitudes towards the victims

Today is International Women’s Day. This day is a global celebration of the political, social and economic achievements of women. This year we are also marking 15 years since the fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in September 1995 when 189 states, including Pakistan, came together and agreed to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere and to ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and girls. In her statement, Pakistan’s prime minister at the time, Benazir Bhutto, highlighted the plight of the girl child in Pakistan. Looking back on the 15 years since Beijing, it seems as if we are regressing as a nation when it comes to the status of Pakistani women and girls.

Adolescent girls in Pakistan are an especially vulnerable section of the population. They are at risk of being subjected to violence in the home, school or community and, not only are they unaware of their rights, they have no support structure to protest abuses. With very little knowledge of their rights and a culture that discourages them from raising their voices against abuse for fear of social retribution or disbelief and marginalisation by the authorities, many young girls suffer in silence till it is too late.

Cases that have come to our attention in the past few months alone include those of two young girls who have been raped by their fathers, two young girls in domestic service who have been allegedly killed by their employers, and a young girl who was in a way handed over by her co-workers to be gang-raped.

Both incest survivors (aged 15 and 18 years) are asking for justice and punishment for the perpetrators. However, incest victims in Pakistan almost never receive legal recourse due to cultural stigma and commonly held stereotypes of girls and family relations that often tend to exonerate the perpetrator and blame the victim. There is no specific provision on incest in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and police, prosecutors and judges often have dismissive and condemning attitudes towards the victims. Perpetrators who stand in relation to the victim also exert influence to prevent the victim from reporting or even dropping charges once filed. A common strategy is to blame the victim’s mother and impugn her character. An examination of incest cases reported over the past 10 years showed that such cases are almost never decided in favour of the victim.

The girls in domestic service include Shazia, aged 12, who died in Lahore after being, apparently, physically tortured and abused by her employer, and Yasmin, aged 15, who was, allegedly, torched to death by her employer in Okara. Despite the examples of these two horrific cases, very little has been done in Pakistan to legally, structurally and institutionally safeguard such young girls from abuse at the hands of their employers. Pakistan’s labour laws prohibit children from working in certain jobs based on their harmful effects on children. Domestic labour, where young girls can live in slavery-like conditions with little or no recourse to education, healthcare and reporting of abuses, should also be classified as such.

Also, last month a young Daewoo hostess from Sialkot was not protected by a Daewoo driver and an armed guard — charged with her protection — against armed men who gang-raped her. The police car dispatched to rescue the girl ‘met with an accident’ and never reached the scene. While the rapists were finally arrested, to our knowledge, Daewoo has not accepted responsibility for its failure to protect an employee against sexual assault on the job.

What is needed, in these and similar cases, is a commitment by the government to systematically examine the lacunae in the legal and administrative system to address such violations and the obstacles faced by girls in accessing the system. A concerted effort must also be made to empower girls through rights education.

While Pakistani women have fought tirelessly for their rights, recent events in parliament are cause for concern. Female MPA Samina Khawar Hayat called upon the Punjab government to amend the existing family laws so that a man no longer has to ask his wife’s permission in order to commit polygamy. Restrictions on polygamy that were fought for by women’s groups in the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, are being dismissed in the name of “women’s security and honour”, which this MPA sees as safeguarded through polygamous unions. Ironically, it is these very unions that have been shown around the world to result in deep violations of the rights of women and their children. The security and honour of Pakistani women and girls, as well as the development of the country, would be well served by education, employment and real political participation opportunities for girls and women.

The one positive development over the last 15 years is the establishment of a vibrant and active civil society that does not shy away from taking on difficult issues such as incest and rape, which have immense stigma attached to them. Chief among these is War against Rape, which works with victims of incest, rape and sexual abuse, the Nasreen Foundation Trust, which provides free legal aid to victims of such abuses and Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), which works for the protection and promotion of child rights in Pakistan. The way forward is clearly encouragement and better resourcing of these and other similar groups so that they can serve their watchdog function and form meaningful partnerships with government institutions so that reforms are informed and enriched by their experience.

Mehr Qureshi works at Equality Now, a New York based international human rights organisation that works to end all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls

Source: Daily Times