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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.

Activists take part in a march on the eve of the commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in Santiago, on 22 November 2018. Martin BERNETTI / AFP

Protecting Women’s Space in Politics

Women human rights defenders around the globe are facing heightened threats of violence and repression. Sometimes they are targeted for being activists, and sometimes just for being women. World leaders should do much more to secure space for women’s safe participation in public life.

In early January 2019, unknown gunmen shot dead Maritza Isabel Quiroz Leiva, a 60-year-old Colombian land rights activist on a small farm near the Caribbean city of Santa Marta. Her killing was a stark reminder that speaking out on social and political issues in Colombia – whether land disputes, women’s rights, or the political violence that endures despite the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement – is dangerous business. For Maritza’s death is not an isolated incident: in the last three years, guerrillas (FARC remnants and others), criminals and mystery assailants have killed more than 300 activists (both men and women) like her.

Nor is Colombia the only country in its neighbourhood where violence against all human rights defenders is putting prominent women activists at risk of physical attack and other abuse. In 2018, our global conflict tracker CrisisWatch recorded several such murders elsewhere in Latin America – including that of Guatemalan indigenous activist Juana Raymundo in July and that of Colombian women’s rights activist Maria Caicedo Muñoz in October.

Women who are in the public eye as they challenge established norms and take on powerful interests, from governments to insurgencies to criminal gangs, are prominent targets; and women leaders representing neglected constituencies – such as the poor, ethnic and sexual minorities, displaced persons or migrants – are also preyed upon. The murder in March of Brazilian Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city council member, is a case in point. In addition to being a campaigner against corruption and police brutality, Franco was a powerful advocate for black women, the LGBT community and youth. The investigation has moved slowly.

In addition to the risk of attack that all activists face, women activists are vulnerable to gender-specific abuse.

From a global perspective, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst highlighted in a 2019 report that in the current political climate – where there has been both a backlash against human rights around the world and a rise in misogynistic rhetoric among political leaders – human rights defenders who are women “have been facing increased repression and violence across the globe”. The report suggests that these women are sometimes targeted for the causes they promote, and sometimes simply because they are women who are publicly asserting themselves.

Moreover, in addition to the risk of attack that all activists face, women activists are vulnerable to gender-specific abuse – which can include stigmatisation, public shaming (as a perceived way to damage their “honour”), threats of sexual violence, online harassment and killings. In April 2018, individuals seeking to undermine and intimidate Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub threatened her with sexual violence on social media and used a fake pornographic video to tarnish her reputation. In June, unknown individuals ransacked the home of journalist and activist Marvi Sirmed, who has done much to highlight the central role of women’s rights and the rule of law in Pakistan’s political transition. In July, an unknown man attacked with sulfuric acid anti-corruption campaigner Kateryna Handzyuk in Kherson, Ukraine; with burns over more than 30 per cent of her body, she died from her wounds in November. And in September, masked attackers opened fire on Soad al-Ali, a leading human rights activist and mother of four in her mid-forties, in broad daylight in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. During roughly the same period, three other influential Iraqi women, including social media leader Tara Fares, were killed, or found dead in suspicious circumstances, at other locations.

World leaders should speak out more forcefully about the critical importance of women’s participation in political life.

One concern about the threat of violence or attack on women activists is that it not only affects their safety, but could chill their participation in public life, where women are already under-represented. Globally, only a quarter of parliamentarians are women, and nearly all heads of state or government leaders are men. This is not to say that addressing risks of political violence will by itself increase women’s representation in politics, as there are many possible reasons for the low numbers on women’s political participation worldwide. Nor does progress in this regard necessarily correlate with lesser danger to women. (Latin America, which has some of the highest rates of violence against human rights defenders in the world, boasts a vibrant women’s rights movement, and several of its parliaments have relatively high levels of female representation.) But making it safer for women to participate in public life can only help. States and their leaders should use the tools at their disposal – from good laws to strong enforcement to hold those responsible for abuse to account, to ensuring that security forces are attuned to the protection needs of women – to combat violence against women activists.

Protecting women’s space in politics is especially important in the conflict resolution area. Despite women’s longstanding role in informal dispute resolution, their near absence from peace talks and similar international security processes and mechanisms, as in Yemen or Afghanistan, requires particular attention. Sidelining conflict-affected women – or women representing those with perceived low status in society due to their socio-economic status, age, education, ethnicity or religion – is no way to build inclusive and lasting frameworks for peace.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, world leaders should speak out more forcefully about the critical importance of women’s participation in political life. They should take more measures to prevent and condemn verbal and physical attacks on women human rights defenders or political leaders and their families. They should also carve out greater and safer space for civil society, including women’s groups, to enable them to have a say in government policies affecting their lives.

The implications of violence against women activists and politicians are broad, not just for families, but also for the well-being of societies at large. Failure to protect women like Maritza Isabel Quiroz Leiva and Marielle Franco sends a terrible signal to women and girls wanting to raise their voice in the public square. Chilling their participation in public life would be a tragedy not just for the women whose potential is being squandered but for the communities in which they live.