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.
To curb violence against women and promote gender equity
To the executives and legislatures of Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments:
1. Respecting international commitments and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, the National Assembly should amend all laws that discriminate against women in the Penal Code and Evidence Act and repeal the Hudood Ordinances in their entirety; all provincial legislatures should pass and implement laws to protect and empower women, including by criminalising and taking effective measures to prevent domestic violence.
2. The National Assembly should approve the Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, the Anti-Honour Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act and the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Act, passed by the Senate in March 2015.
3. The national legislature should establish a quota of general (directly-elected) National Assembly seats, in addition to the existing reserved (unelected) seats, for women legislators, and the parliament’s rules of procedures should be amended to ensure a certain number of parliamentary committees are headed by women.
4. The federal and provincial governments should prioritise the development of a gender-responsive security apparatus, including by increasing the numbers of policewomen, particularly in senior positions; building police capacity to investigate crimes against women; and strengthening the National Police Bureau (NPB) and its gender crimes cell’s liaison with provincial authorities.
5. The provincial governments should build the capacity of the Provincial Commissions on the Status of Women (PCSW) to monitor violations of women’s rights and to ensure that government policies and legislation produce gender equality and women’s empowerment.
To the international community, particularly the UN and donor countries:
6. Continue and enhance support for developing gender-responsive policing and women’s rights bodies; also ensure that women’s needs, rights and priorities are meaningfully addressed in all aid programing.
To protect and empower women in conflict-affected areas
To the federal government and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) provincial government:
7. Repeal the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) in FATA and the Nizam-e-Adl in PATA and extend the jurisdiction of superior courts to FATA so that citizens there can seek protection of the fundamental rights the constitution guarantees them.
8. Include women and protect their rights and interests in counter-insurgency and peacebuilding strategies.
9. Promote civilian-led and civilian-devised humanitarian assistance and take measures to ensure that displaced women receive timely and adequate assistance, including by facilitating national and international NGOs’ access to areas of displacement and investigating allegations of discriminatory assistance.
10. The federal and KPK governments should ensure that women can exercise their rights of franchise and to stand for public office; and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should investigate all cases of women having been barred from voting or contesting elections.
To the international community, particularly the UN and donor countries:
11. Ensure that women’s needs are adequately assessed in relief and rehabilitation assistance to conflict-affected and internally displaced persons.
12. Encourage the federal government to repeal the FCR and Nizam-e-Adl and to support women’s rights in the conflict zones and participation in the development of counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism policies and peacebuilding efforts.