Women’s rights on paper versus in practice. By Saba Jamal

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In recent years, the Pakistani government appears to have made strides in protecting women’s rights. Through Article 25 of the Constitution, as well as the 1996 adoption of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Pakistani government has promised the country’s disenfranchised women food, social security, housing, education, an adequate standard of living and healthcare.
But these policy commitments have rarely been translated into practice, and have failed to change the lives of many Pakistani women.
Instead, these women continue to face incredible hurdles. The most devastating consequence of under-development in any society is a high fatality rate, and Pakistan has higher infant and maternal mortality rates than many developing countries in both Asia and Africa. The rate of preventable maternal mortality is a symptom of the larger social injustice of discrimination against women and a violation of women’s human rights.
Women in Pakistan are victims of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, including acid throwing and honour killings. For example, in some villages in Pakistan, if a woman tries to marry of her own free will she is said to have brought disgrace upon her family and she may even be murdered. No questions are asked, even though laws exist prohibiting this practice.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and an endless number of NGOs have been fighting for women’s rights for quite some time now. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that the annual worldwide total of honour killing victims may be as high as 5,000 women, although no official figures are available in Pakistan on the frequency of this practice.
Pakistan recently implemented laws to combat domestic violence, such as the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act of 2006, but they have done little to bring perpetrators to justice. Naheeda Mehboob Illahi, the deputy attorney general and an expert in family law recently promoted as a Supreme Court judge, has admitted that the laws are not being implemented in their true spirit, which is why in many cases motive is not established and murder is dubbed “an accident”.
While honour killings attract more attention in the media, other social customs are also very detrimental to women. Pait likkhi, literally “written on the stomach”, is one such custom where a girl and boy are betrothed to each other before they are born or in their early teens. Islamic law, in contrast, holds that a husband must be able to support his wife and that both partners must consent to marriage out of their own free will.
Although in 1929, under the tenure of British India, a Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed that prohibits child marriages, tribal customs and traditions still prevail and authorities often ignore these laws because influential feudal lords are involved in the practice.
Swara and vani are also types of child marriages where young girls are forcibly married to members of different clans in order to resolve feuds. Recently, Pakistan’s courts have begun taking serious note of this illegal practice and have attempted to take action against its continuation. But again, those involved tend to be powerful both socially and politically.
Watta satta creates a similar problem. At the time of marriage, both families trade brides. In order for a man to marry off his son, he must also have a daughter to marry off to a member of the bride’s family in return. In this practice, women are treated as saleable commodities rather than human beings.
These practices must stop. The question is when and how. There are two solutions to obstacles facing women in Pakistan, and they must come from both those in power and women themselves.
First, lawmakers need to wake up and acknowledge realities facing Pakistan’s women and take stringent measures to prevent these injustices from occurring. Second, they must make sure the existing laws are fully and properly implemented.
Furthermore, access to all levels of education is crucial for empowering women to participate in the economic, social and political life of their societies. The government needs to put special focus particularly on female education.
Education is the key factor in the prosperity and development of any country. It unlocks a women’s potential, and is accompanied by improvements in the health, nutrition and well being of their families, as well as a brighter and more promising future for generations to come.

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* Saba Jamal (sabajamal@yahoo.com) is a filmmaker, socio-political analyst, and talk show host in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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