The EU must hold Pakistan to account for violence against women

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Under a recent law in Pakistan, men can "lightly beat" their wives if they dress against their wishes. [Maria Ly/Flickr]

Honour killings and domestic violence are constant worries for the women of Pakistan. The EU must use its influence to push the deep change Pakistani society desperately needs, writes Barbara Matera.

Barbara Matera is a Forza Italia MEP (EPP group) and vice-chair of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) committee.

Women across the world are increasingly facing greater violence despite the efforts of the international community to shape a landscape that will ensure equal rights for women and men and at the same time protect women from the threat of sexual, physical or psychological abuse.

The recent cases of violence against women and girls in Pakistan are extremely worrying. They indicate a tendency in the country to defend any formerly accepted abusive practices, against the efforts of the human rights community to introduce greater rights for women that will ensure progress on gender equality and socio-economic development for Pakistani society.

‘Honour killings’ are a reality in Pakistan, with two deaths reported during the last few weeks alone. Particularly brutal and common, such deaths serve as examples of how deeply rooted such practices are within Pakistani society.

One of the latest cases occurred on 9 June. Zeenat Bibi, a 16 year-old girl, died after she was set on fire by her parents in the city of Lahore a little over a week after she wed a man against her parents’ will. Her mother Perveen Bibi has admitted to the killing, although it is believed that she had been helped in the murder by her brother and son, and was covering up for them.

Just a week earlier, on 1 June, Maria Sadaqat, a young schoolteacher, was burned alive after she turned down a marriage proposal from the son of the owner of a school she taught at. She suffered serious burns to 85% of her body. Earlier this year village elders had ordered the murder of a teenage girl because she helped a friend to elope.

The phenomenon of honour killings is particularly current in Pakistan where nearly 1,100 women were killed by relatives last year according to the country’s independent Human Rights Commission. Women are very often considered objects, readily traded and with no free will. There is a general perception that they should accept whatever fate is chosen for them by family or men. Any woman that dares to defy such outside wills is punished, with violence and death the most common forms of “moral justice”.

The EU and the international community cannot remain silent before this injustice. The Pakistani government needs to be called upon to fully comply with its commitments. It needs to amend its laws on “honor killings” and ensure that such laws are being fully enforced, bringing the perpetrators of such horrendous acts to justice.

It is local “councils” and tribal or religious “courts” that most often rush to take over the adjudication of such cases. And they typically arrive at these unjust decisions, since it is the balance of power in the local communities is not in favour of women. Such councils and courts should not be allowed to adjudicate cases where civil and criminal courts need to deliver real justice and at the same time send a message to society about where their values stand.

Further, the government of Pakistan needs to implement educational programmes that aim to change public acceptance of “honour killings” and bring more gender balance to Pakistani society itself. It is these general beliefs that have created the current situation in the country and the EU needs to implement policies and programmes in cooperation with the Pakistani authorities, to bring about a change in social norms.

At the same time, great changes need to be implemented at an institutional level. In May 2016 the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body in Pakistan, put forth legislation that would allow men to “lightly beat” their wives if they refuse sex or decline to wear outfits preferred by their husbands. In addition, the proposal also suggests that men use “limited violence” on their wives if they don’t bathe after intercourse or during menstruation. The proposal includes punishment for those men who refuse to apply such practices.

This proposal from the CII came as a response to the call for laws that will provide greater protection for women in Pakistan against domestic violence. At the same time, it shows that, as far as there are institutional bodies in Pakistan proposing such despicable acts of violence against women, no real gender equality or empowerment of Pakistani women can be possible. The institutional framework of such constitutional and consultative bodies in Pakistan needs to be revamped to ensure that the principles of respect for human rights and a vision of real social development are reflected in the policies adopted or proposed by such institutions.

Europe needs to take a firm stance on this matter and give the right signals to the Pakistani government. Political commitments without the implementation of real policies on the ground can no longer be considered sufficient. Any EU assistance to Pakistan must be provided on the condition that such policies are transformed into action by the Pakistani authorities, in good faith, and until women in Pakistan will no longer live in fear of persecution and violence.

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