Arooj Zahra found herself in a state of disbelief when she overheard her senior colleague engaging in a boisterous conversation filled with sexual innuendos among his male coworkers, all while she was present. She had recently joined a semi-government department under the federal government, and to make matters more challenging, she was the sole female employee in that particular section. Initially, she contemplated intervening and delivering a stern reprimand, especially to her senior colleague, regarding their lewd conversation. However, she ultimately refrained from doing so, weighed down by the awareness that she was the only woman in the large room.
The second time she had to endure this mental torment caused by the offensive remarks, Arooj decided to take action and lodged a complaint with the office in-charge. Unfortunately, her complaint yielded no results as not only did the main ‘culprit’ dismiss her concerns, but some other male members of the section also informed the in-charge that such conversations were commonplace and unrelated to her presence. As their crude remarks continued to wear on her nerves, she took the step of requesting a transfer to another section, even though the work there did not align with her academic qualifications.
According to a report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Arooj Zahra’s case falls within the category of 32% of women in Pakistan who silently endure gender-based violence without seeking legal recourse. The report underscores that gender-based violence against women is a widespread human rights violation on a global scale, representing a grave threat to both their health and safety.
The report highlights that gender-based violence manifests in various insidious forms, both in the real world and on online platforms, encompassing physical, sexual, psychological, and digital violence. Any form of violence takes a toll on the survivors’ physical and mental well-being, potentially leading to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Survivors may also experience a loss of their sense of individuality, dignity, and self-worth, as outlined in the report.
Prof Dr. Raana Malik, the head of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of the Punjab, Lahore, points out that one of the most prevalent forms of violence in today’s world is digital violence or virtual abuse of women and girls. Digital violence encompasses online sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and the non-consensual use of images and videos. Globally, 85% of women have reported witnessing digital violence, and almost 40% have personally experienced it, according to the professor. She laments that the hate and devaluation of women online result in long-term psychological, emotional, and physical distress.
Global statistics, as cited in the UNFPA report, reveal that nine out of ten women (92%) have indicated that online violence negatively impacts their well-being, with over a third (35%) reporting mental health issues stemming from online violence. Digital violence also jeopardizes the professional and economic livelihoods of women and girls who rely on online and social media spaces, according to the report’s findings.
Prof Raana Malik emphasizes that women and girls have the fundamental right to feel safe in all environments, regardless of their location. It is an opportune moment for everyone to reflect on strategies to eradicate gender-based violence, as advocated by the professor.
The UNFPA report underscores that the organization, in collaboration with other partners, is vigorously working towards this campaign by raising awareness, mobilizing advocacy efforts, and inspiring concrete actions to eliminate gender-based violence, child marriage, and other harmful practices. Their ultimate goal is to end gender-based violence by 2030, achieved through the empowerment of women and girls with knowledge about their bodies and rights, as well as engaging men and boys in changing their attitudes, with a focus on understanding the harmful nature of gender-based violence.
The report paints a grim picture of an ongoing, seemingly endless war without boundaries. Shockingly, it reveals that every 11 minutes, a woman or girl falls victim to violence at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member. More than half of the women and girls who lost their lives last year were tragically killed by someone they knew closely, either a partner or a family member. These statistics send shivers down one’s spine, particularly because they represent just the visible portion of a much larger problem. They serve as a stark reminder of the pervasive vulnerability that millions of females face, even within the supposed safety of their homes, markets, or workplaces. This violence takes a toll on their physical and mental health, disrupts their relationships, and hampers their productivity. Natural disasters and conflicts only exacerbate existing structural and gender inequalities, creating conditions like displacement, which further endanger women’s safety. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated gender-based violence, as women and girls found themselves trapped in lockdowns with their abusers, with few avenues for escape or assistance.
The UNFPA report underscores that patriarchal societies like Pakistan, where notions of honor are often tied to how a woman behaves and appears in the eyes of others, grapple with deeply rooted issues. Domestic violence is still largely viewed as a private matter, even a male ‘privilege.’ Disturbingly, data shows that 34% of ever-married women in Pakistan have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses. However, due to cultural norms and limited resources, a staggering 56% of these women who reported enduring such violence have neither sought help to end the abuse nor confided in anyone about their suffering.
Prof. Dr. Raana Malik points out that every province in Pakistan now has legislation against domestic violence, but the enforcement of these laws varies from weak to practically non-existent. Nevertheless, there have been instances, particularly in response to highly publicized cases of femicide, where gender-based violence has been openly discussed, and perpetrators publicly condemned. Legislation against honor killings, a longstanding form of violence against women, has been strengthened in recent years. However, as illustrated by the acquittal of the murderer of social media star Qandeel Baloch, loopholes in the law can be exploited by those with misogynistic mindsets. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace represents a more insidious form of gender-based violence, and once again, patriarchal beliefs about public spaces being the domain of men, with women as mere intruders, often hinder the implementation of laws against it.
*The name has been changed to protect privacy upon request.
(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])