Farooqi H, Ghafoor A. A systemic plague: addressing the culture of gender based violence(GBV) in Pakisttan. HPHR. 2021;52. https://doi.org/10.54111/0001/ZZ3
This piece focuses on the issue of Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Pakistan and addresses the systematic nature of the problem. It delves into discussions regarding the complex interplay of a flawed education system, current held beliefs, traditional practices, the general outlook of the population, and a lack of accountability and legal recourse which all feed into the problem.
Pakistan is a nation that prides itself on its rich pedigree of tradition and deeply entrenched cultural values. This is evidenced by the extravaganza that overtakes the country on days of nationalistic celebration, the frequency of their occurrence, and the zeal by which the nation defends this pride. One constant throughout the development of this young nation has been the patriarchal influence manifesting as a blatant asymmetry in dynamics of law, policy, domestic affairs, public health and most importantly, tradition. Pakistan ranks 135th on the gender inequality index1 and 153rd on the global gender gap index2. Such rankings indicate that the problem does not simply lie in one facet of governance but is rather intertwined with the story of Pakistan. Gender based violence (GBV) is a symptom of this ubiquitous and all-encompassing power dynamic where 70-90% of women report to suffer some form of domestic violence3. To form a tangible and functional strategy for addressing this plague, the conversation must begin at a discussion of the causes which seem to be a complex interplay of lacking education, traditional practices and attitudes, the general outlook towards domestic issues, and the hurdles for seeking any form of recourse.
Women of this country are recurrently subjected to never-ending patterns of abuse, with select small-scale studies reporting ranges of 31.3–83.6% for psychological abuse, 10.0–98.5% for physical violence, 2.5–77.0% for sexual violence, 1.0–68.0% for physical and sexual combined and 6.9–90.0% for verbal abuse and oppressive, tormenting behavior.4 In 2020 alone, violence against females in Pakistan were reported in 2297 cases, and there have been over 22,000 cases filed in courts across the country over the last six years.5 These statistics alone do not paint a complete picture of the extent of this violence as it is estimated that around half the women that experience it never seek help or tell anyone about it.6 This violence in its alarming numbers is mainly carried out by the husbands, with in-laws often being the bystanders, if not also the transgressors. When and if these attacks are reported, they are written off as mistakes or even suicides, and law enforcement is notorious for dismissing these cases for private and domestic disputes.
A vital component in the process of self-actualization and the discovery of one’s rights, limitations and privileges is education. Women in Pakistan are stripped of this as is evidenced by the stark asymmetry in the proportion of female youth not in education, training or employment which sits at 54.9% as opposed to 7.6% in males.7 This has downstream consequences when it comes to how they view and value themselves. A study conducted in South Punjab showed a significant decrease in physical violence against women with increasing level of education and concluded that female education seems necessary for eliminating violence against women and guaranteeing their basic human rights.8 The under-representation and, in some areas, the absence of women in the learning environment allows for a confirmation bias that further propagates preheld notions of traditionally inherent gender inequality and mistreatment of the opposite gender.
The patriarchal culture of dominance and control in Pakistan is deeply rooted in traditional societal norms and values, which place a high premium on the preservation of family honor and reputation. This culture encourages men to exert control over women, to regulate their behavior, and to punish them if they are perceived to have transgressed societal norms. There is a strongly held belief that the “izzat” or honor of an entire family is tied to the women of their household and so must be preserved through masculine power and authority. If a woman behaves contrary to arbitrary rules of a house or community which dictate her role and behavioral expectations, then it is perceived as an insult to the family and demonstrates a lack of control by the men in that house. Egregious measures are taken to remedy any insult inflicted on the family and regain “izzat” through means which are often degrading and violent towards the woman. The idea of preservation of “izzat” is often the justification upon which these traditions are predicated.
This culture of control is reinforced by traditional religious and legal systems, which often fail to provide adequate protection to victims of honor killings and may even condone such killings.9 Common cultural practices of these acts of abuse in Pakistan towards its women include, but are not limited to, honor killings, Swara, Ghag, concurring with murder, rape, kidnapping, acid burning, and physical torturing.
Swara, or Vani, is a practice where girls of one family, often children under the age of 16, are given in marriage to another family as a form of reparation and making amends for disputes between the families, such as murder or adultery.10 Victims of Swara are thus trapped in these forced unconsented marriages for the rest of their lives, living as their family’s compensatory pay-off for crimes and feuds committed between their clans, left vulnerable to being subjected to add on to the country’s gender based violence cases. Another culturally dehumanizing practice of psychological abuse towards females is Ghag, meaning announcement in Pashto. This is when a man announces, usually verbally, his intention to “claim” a young girl or woman of his society for marriage, with or without consent of her or her Wali, or guardian.11 This forced public demand of a woman’s hand in marriage is not only socially mortifying and destructive for the woman, but for her entire family as well, as these women are thus deemed “spoken for ” and claimed as the man’s trophy prize, and the unconsented marking of a man’s territory is done sometimes as “revenge” for another dispute between two families with no true desire to go through with the alleged marriage proclamation. The announcement alone in these vengeful situations puts the woman and her family to shame in society, as she may then have to live the rest of her life unmarried in a patriarchal society, since she has now been publicly “declared” by another man, and any further association with the woman in her next years of seeking marriage is adjudged to bring shame and degradation. This practice of Ghag goes on to strip the woman of self worth and esteem, causing serious mental health issues and long term consequences and struggles, with the trauma and indignity from being an objected playing card entrenched in her mind and never to be forgotten, undoubtedly affecting her future decisions, with her future children likely having to be victims of her battle with unresolved trauma responses; all whilst seizing absolutely nothing from the man.
Honor killings, also known as shame killings, are a common form of murder in which a member of a family or community is killed by relatives, due to the belief that the victim has brought dishonor and shame upon the family or community.12 In Pakistan, honor killings are a common heinous practice and are often tied to patriarchal culture, as they are committed primarily by men who seek to maintain control and dominance over women in their families. These killings are often motivated by the belief that a woman who has engaged in behaviors deemed unacceptable by the community, such as choosing her own partner, refusing an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, dressing immodestly outside, being a victim of rape, or being suspected of engaging in premarital or extramarital sexual relationships13, has brought shame upon the family and has tarnished their image in society. In many cases, the victims of honor killings are women, and the perpetrators are male members of their own families, seeking to restore their family’s dignity by removing the woman who destroyed it from the equation entirely.
The difficulties in obtaining legal recourse for victims of GBV stem from a multitude of reasons which by themselves highlight the systematic nature of the problem. Firstly, women are often unaware of the rights they possess and legal remedies at their disposal when such transgressions are made against them.
Because such violence is culturally normalized and intergenerationally observed, the victim is often oblivious to the very fact that they are being wronged. Once an intent is established to take action against their abusers, the biggest hurdle the victim faces is the lack of legal aid as they do not have the resources to hire lawyers and fight their case in a reluctant court of law.14 These responsibilities often befall on NGO’s such as Aurat Foundation, War Against Rape, Madadgar Helpline, and Acid Survivors Foundation. While important work is being carried out by these organizations, their position is to aid the legal and welfare system of the country and not to replace it. The ineffectual policies and framework of the legal system in the country transfers burdensome responsibilities on these NGO’s which they aren’t in a position to fulfill owing to a lack of resources, government support, coordination and a national infrastructure.15 While laws such as The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment)Act 2011, and The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2013 have passed and an effort has been made recently at clarifying the legal definitions and terminology surrounding GBV, the hurdles mentioned above and the lack of awareness among law enforcement officials and the wider public, limited resources for investigating and prosecuting cases of GBV, and social and cultural attitudes make legal recourse an almost impossible and highly unsuccessful pursuit.
The statistics of gender based violence, beating, acid burning, torturing, murdering and raping of women increase daily throughout the provinces of Pakistan, and women are subdued by societal pressures to keep quiet. They are afraid to speak up in fear of worsening disputes between families, leaving their reputation in ruins, defaming their perpetrator to society, and inviting grounds for more abuse and violence towards them; the very crime they risk their lives to speak up against. The problem of gender based violence in Pakistan is a complex one that requires a multifaceted approach. It requires changing societal attitudes towards women and their role in society, strengthening legal protections for victims, and increasing awareness and education about the harm caused by honor killings. It also requires the support of community leaders and religious figures to combat the patriarchal culture of dominance and control that perpetuates these transgressions.
HF responsible for the initial draft. AG responsible for the review and final draft.
Annas Ghafoor is a medical student at Dow University in Karachi Pakistan. He is involved with problems surrounding access to healthcare for marginalized and discriminated populations in the country and addressing the stigma around mental health.
Halah Farooqi is a medical student at Dow University in Karachi, Pakistan. Her passion lies in the fields of community/family medicine and female health, reflecting her commitment to making a positive impact in women’s lives and addressing the limitations of women to healthcare access.