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Pakistani human rights activists hold candles as they shout slogans during a rally in Lahore on 7 March 2011 on the eve of International Women's Day. AFP/Arif Ali
Report 265 / Asia

Women, Violence and Conflict in Pakistan

In Pakistan, women’s security and political, social and economic status are under attack by religious extremists, undermined by discriminatory legislation and unprotected by the state. The government must stand by its pledge to end gender inequity and violence against women, especially in the conflict zones of north-western Pakistan and the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Executive Summary

Eight years into its democratic transition, violence against women is still endemic in Pakistan, amid a climate of impunity and state inaction. Discriminatory legislation and a dysfunctional criminal justice system have put women at grave risk. Targeted by violent extremists with an overt agenda of gender repression, women’s security is especially threatened in the conflict zones in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). On 8 March, International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed that his government would take all necessary legislative and administrative steps to protect and empower women. If this pledge was in earnest, his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government should end institutionalised violence and discrimination against women, including by repealing unjust laws, countering extremist threats, particularly in KPK and FATA, and involving women and their specially relevant perspectives in design of state policies directly affecting their security, including strategies to deal with violent extremist groups.

Women in the past were the principal victims of state policies to appease violent extremists. After democracy’s return, there has been some progress, particularly through progressive legislation, much of it authored by committed women’s rights activists in the federal and provincial legislatures, facilitated by their increased numbers in parliament. Yet, the best of laws will provide little protection so long as social attitudes toward women remain biased, police officers are not held accountable for failing to investigate gender-based crimes, the superior judiciary does not hold the subordinate judiciary accountable for failing to give justice to women survivors of violence, and discriminatory laws remain on the books.

Laws, many remnants of General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation in the 1970s and 1980s, continue to deny women their constitutional right to gender equality and fuel religious intolerance and violence against them. Their access to justice and security will remain elusive so long as legal and administrative barriers to political and economic empowerment remain, particularly the Hudood Ordinances (1979), FATA’s Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) (1901) and the Nizam-e-Adl (2009) in KPK’s Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA).

The government has a constitutional obligation and international commitments, including under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to combat gender inequality and remove such barriers to women’s empowerment. Repealing discriminatory legislation and enforcing laws that protect women, including by ensuring that they have access to a gender-responsive police and courts, are essential to ending the impunity that promotes violence against women.

The extent to which rights violations go unpunished is particularly alarming in FATA and KPK, where women are subjected to state-sanctioned discrimination, militant violence, religious extremism and sexual violence. Militants target women’s rights activists, political leaders and development workers without consequences. The prevalence of informal justice mechanisms in many parts of Pakistan, particularly in Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, are also highly discriminatory toward women; and the government’s indiscriminate military operations, which have displaced millions, have further aggravated the challenges they face in the conflict zones.

In KPK and FATA, and indeed countrywide, women’s enhanced meaningful presence in decision-making, including political participation as voters and in public office, will be central to sustainable reform. Pakistan should invest in their empowerment and reflect their priorities in all government policies, including counter-insurgency and peacebuilding efforts. All too often, women comprise a majority of both the intended victims of the insurgency and the unintended victims of the counter-insurgency response.

National and provincial legislation to enhance protections for women is a step in the right direction, but much more is needed to safeguard them against violence and injustice and ultimately to consolidate Pakistan’s democratic transition.

South Sudanese women march to end war on 9 December 2017. Women and religious groups are among the only groups still allowed to publicly protest and march in South Sudan. AFP/Stefanie Glinski
Commentary / Global

A Hidden Face of War

The impact of conflict is rarely seen through the prism of reproductive health. Yet women and girls routinely face sexual and gender-based violence during war and its aftermath, maternal mortality is endemic in conflict-affected areas and amplifying women’s voices is critical to removing risks to their well-being.

A few years ago, a woman in her sixties outside Banda Aceh in Indonesia told me about the rape and other torture she had endured during the conflict between the Free Aceh Movement and the government. Beyond the psychological trauma, her body still suffered from enduring physical pain. Many years on, while the open conflict had ended, she still had not received comprehensive health care and support. Instead, like too many survivors of physical and sexual violence, she was left in a vicious circle of isolation, carrying the burden of stigma and shame.

In war and its immediate aftermath, it is easy to forget those who are voiceless or invisible in the public space. Yet, countless reports show that time and again women and adolescent girls are at higher risk of sexual and gender-based violence during and after conflict – putting at risk their reproductive health. With health infrastructure destroyed and information about sexual and reproductive health missing, they may also face a higher risk of dying due to pregnancy-related complications.

Over half of the world’s maternal deaths occur in countries torn apart by armed violence.

Maternal death, when a woman dies during pregnancy or in the weeks after, and maternal morbidity, long-lasting health problems during and after pregnancy, rarely feature when we speak about the effects of deadly conflict. Yet, the number of women and girls dying during pregnancy or childbirth is often high in conflict-affected areas, while many suffer from chronic illnesses.

Over half of the world’s maternal deaths occur in countries torn apart by armed violence and in fragile states. According to recent estimates, four out of the ten countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality face deadly conflict: the Central African Republic, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia. Two are at risk of deadly violence or civil war: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. And three others have been marked by devastating wars: Sierra Leone, Chad and Liberia. In Afghanistan, despite years of international aid, the maternal mortality ratio is still at 396 deaths per 100,000 live births or, according to recent studies, possibly twice as high. Each context carries its own dynamics with a set of social, cultural and economic factors at play. Yet, like battlefield deaths, maternal deaths are for the most part preventable.

Conflict can exacerbate pre-existing patterns of gender discrimination and inequality.

In ways that can be easy to overlook, conflict can exacerbate pre-existing patterns of gender discrimination and inequality, leaving women and girls with few survival options. In the face of extreme hardship, some are forced to marry young, which carries higher health risks, while others may choose to turn to transactional sex, leaving them highly vulnerable to trafficking, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies. Shortly after the conflict has ended, women and girls also tend to experience higher levels of gender-based and intimate partner violence, which further increase threats to their sexual and reproductive health.

Instead of bringing women into the decision-making space, the end of violent conflict can see women – whether they are combatants, survivors, or economic providers – sidelined and blocked from accessing sexual and reproductive health reparations.

With the growing number of conflicts around the world, more and more women find themselves trapped in camps for displaced people, where health services – when they exist – are often delayed or disrupted, with limited or infrequent supplies of vital medicines and food. As Crisis Group’s report on Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency in Nigeria illustrated, access to even some of the most basic health services can be dramatically limited. We have called, among other measures, for an expansion and improvement of gender-sensitive aspects of aid programs in all Boko Haram-affected areas.

For women living in conflict-affected environments, childbirth can be a particularly dangerous and traumatic experience. Many have to give birth unassisted and in unsanitary conditions, increasing the likelihood of trauma, long-lasting physical illness, and death. In South Sudan, a country devastated by years of war, at least one woman in 28 is likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause. In fragile and conflict-affected environments, where only 65 per cent of births are attended by skilled health professionals, unassisted birth remains one of the main drivers of maternal mortality. Unable to access safe abortion services, many women also resort to unsafe and potentially life-threatening methods to terminate their pregnancies.

We must recognise the challenge of preventable maternal deaths in conflict-affected areas, and provide adequate sexual and reproductive health information and services to women and girls of all ages.

In the past twenty years, governments, humanitarian actors, and members of the civil society have made tremendous progress in mainstreaming reproductive health into humanitarian responses and legal frameworks. Despite these advances, many gaps remain.

To continue making progress, we must recognise the challenge of preventable maternal deaths in conflict-affected areas, and provide adequate sexual and reproductive health information and services to women and girls of all ages. Governments must plan responses to conflict carefully to provide greater say to women. Neglecting these issues can fuel new abuses or prolong pain in Aceh, Nigeria and other conflict-affected societies.

Antoine Got, former Research Assistant, provided essential background research for this commentary.