NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 06

Nothing solid yet to curb gender-based violence

Arooj Zahra* was in shock when she heard her senior co-worker making a loud talk, full of sexual innuendos, to his male colleagues in her presence. She had joined the semi-government department of the federal government recently, and was the only female employee in the section. She thought of interrupting and lecturing them, especially the senior one, over the vulgar talk, but then restrained herself, for being the only female in the big room.

The second time when she had to bear with the mental torture, caused by the offensive utterances, she complained to the office in-charge. However, nothing changed as not only the main ‘accused’ but some other male members of the section told the in-charge their conversations were a routine matter and had nothing to do with her. Later, when their filthy remarks started getting on her nerves, she got herself transferred to another section which had two female employees, though work there was not related to her academic qualifications.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, released in the last week of November 2022, says the Arooj Zahra case falls in the category of 32pc women of Pakistan, who have to bear with gender-based violence, but they do not seek any legal help. The report says gender-based violence against women is one of the most prevalent human rights violations across the globe, as it is a life-threatening health and protection issue.

According to the report, gender-based violence takes many insidious forms in the real world to online platforms including physical, sexual, psychological and digital violence. Any form of violence affects the survivors’ physical and mental health and it may cause anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviours, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Survivors may lose their sense of individuality, dignity, or self-worth, said the report.

Prof. Dr. Raana Malik, head of the Department of Gender Studies, University of the Punjab, Lahore, says one of the most prevalent forms of violence these days is digital violence or virtual abuse of women and girls. Digital violence includes online sexual harassment, cyberbullying and non-consensual use of images and video. Globally, 85pc of women reported witnessing digital violence, and nearly 40pc have experienced it personally, the professor says. Hate and devaluation of women online cause long-term psychological, emotional and physical distress, she regrets.

According to global statistics, given by the UNFPA report, nine out of 10 women (92pc) told the researchers that online violence harmed their sense of well-being and over a third (35pc) experienced mental health issues due to online violence. Digital violence impacts professional and economic livelihoods of women and girls, who depend on online and social media spaces, according to the findings.

Prof. Raana Malik says women and girls have the right to feel safe in all spaces, wherever they are. On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women were initiated on November 25. It is time for everyone to reflect on how to end gender-based violence, believes the professor.

The report says that the UNFPA is working hard with other partners on the campaign by raising awareness, mobilising advocacy and inspiring action to end gender-based violence, child marriage and other harmful practices. It aims at ending gender-based violence by 2030, through empowering women and girls with information about their bodies and rights; and engaging men and boys to change their attitudes with information on why gender-based violence is harmful.

The report says it is a war without boundaries and seemingly without an end. The report reveals that every 11 minutes, a woman or girl is killed by an intimate partner or a family member. According to the report, more than half the women and girls murdered last year were slain by a partner or close relative. These are chilling statistics, all the more so because they are merely the tip of the iceberg. They are a reminder of how vulnerable millions of females are, even in their own homes, markets or workplaces. Their physical and mental health, their relationships and productivity all suffer as a result. Natural disasters and wars exacerbate structural and gender inequities and create conditions, such as displacement, in which women’s safety is further imperilled. Gender-based violence also registered a massive spike during the Covid-19 pandemic when women and girls were forced into lockdowns with their abusers and had few opportunities to escape or seek help.

According to the UNFPA report, patriarchal societies like Pakistan, with notions of honour predicated on how a woman’s behaviour and appearance may be perceived by others, have a particularly deep-rooted problem. Domestic violence is still largely seen as a private issue, even a male ‘privilege’. Reported data indicates that 34pc of ever-married women in Pakistan have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence at the hands of their spouses. Yet, because of cultural norms and/or dearth of resources, 56pc of ever-married women who reported suffering physical or sexual violence have neither sought help to stop their abusers’ behaviour nor confided in anyone.

Prof. Dr. Raana Malik says every province now has legislation against domestic violence but implementation varies from weak to non-existent — although some recent, particularly horrific cases of femicide have led to gender-based violence being more openly discussed with perpetrators publicly censured. Legislation against honour killing, an age-old form of violence against females, has been strengthened during the past few years. However, as the acquittal of the killer of social media star, Qandeel Baloch illustrates, loopholes in the law can be exploited by misogynistic mindsets. Sexual harassment of women at the workplace is a more insidious form of gender-based violence, but again, patriarchal notions about the public space belonging to men, with women merely interlopers, often stymies implementation of the law against it.

* The name changed on request to preserve privacy

(The writer is a physician by profession. She has worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) & the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected])