Conflict Alerts # 161, 16 September 2020
In the news
On 12 September, a large number women from all walks of life along with a substantial number of men took to the streets in different cities across Pakistan demanding justice and structural reform after the shocking gang rape on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway. Arranged by progressive groups, including the Women Democratic Front (WDF), Aurat Azadi March, Women Action Forum and Awami Workers Party, called on the government to commit to eradicating the culture of rape and harassment in Pakistan. Further, the protesters also called for making public spaces safer and more accessible to women, an increase in investment in education and health, the safety of women, end to the culture of victim-blaming, effective and transparent investigations by the criminal justice system as well as the removal of the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Sheikh for his comments on the incident.
This outrage comes after an incident earlier this month where a woman driving on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway along with her two children was gang rape after her car ran out of fuel and stalled. The news of the heinous crime which went viral creating a public outrage grew worse after CCPO Sheikh initially unsympathetically took to blaming the victim while addressing the media, stating that the woman could have avoided being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He later went on to apologize for his remarks on 14 September.
Issues at large
First, violence against women has been consistently on the rise in Pakistan. According to a survey conducted in 2018 by Thomson Reuters Foundation, Pakistan ranks as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women, with cases of sexual crimes and domestic violence recording steep increase. The country was also designated as the fourth worst nation when it came to discrimination in the workplace, access to economic resources such as land, and risks to their safety owing to cultural, religious and traditional practices including so-called "honour" killings. Activists have blamed society's patriarchal attitudes for this problem.
Second, the response from the state. The issues here are three-fold, first the casual attitude of the police and politicization of the police to boot often trivializing such issues. Second, the shortcoming of legislation lies in its effectiveness and implementation rather than the lack of it. Third, the role of the judiciary, who has become more vocal, however, women often struggle to access justice.
Third, the rising voice of women. Women especially in Pakistan over the last two year have become more vocal about their rights. The Aurat March being a manifestation of this, however, on the other hand, violent campaign and attacks the demonstrators these marches show how Pakistani women are constantly rebuked when they demand the right to freedom
Violence against women is a grave violation of women's human rights, irrespective of where, how or when it takes place. The horrific gang rape of a mother along the highway was not an isolated incident, but comes against a backdrop of regular threats and harassment of women, leaving the women and other marginalized sections of the society in danger. Further, the ineffective legislation continues to feed this issue, with it unable to tackle this systemic problem.
Further, violence against women goes to show the root of the issue lies in the highly patriarchal and social and cultural values that are entrenched in society.