Saturday, 12 May 2012

Encountering Domestic Violence in Pakistan

Naturally formed feminist theories have always been a part of me. Yet, as a woman born and raised in Pakistan, I had the inherent inclination to accept the reality of prevailing gender biases and live with them. This changed forever the day I walked through the doors of AGHS Legal Aid Cell. As a non-governmental organization offering free legal aid to women, children, bonded labor, and religious minorities, the work of AGHS became deeply entrenched inside my consciousness. Indeed, after over five years of being in the United States, I returned to Pakistan in 2008 to re-join the efforts of the organization which truly shaped my personality as a woman.

While every citizen of the world has the right to life, liberty, and security, many women across Pakistan live without the guarantee of such rights. These women strive to be valuable members of their society, but need platforms from which they can throw away their shrouds of silence, raise their voice, and demand an end to social injustice. AGHS has been one such leading organization committed to ending violence against women and promoting women’s rights. As an intern, my rigorous discussions with eminent activists and regular visits to human rights institutions allowed me to not only learn from the experts in the field but also gain an insider’s look at the extent of the prevailing human rights issues inflicting the country.

Unlike many of my compatriots who adopted a more comprehensive approach to understanding the overall human rights situation in Pakistan, I was particularly struck by the issue of violence against women. In my curiosity to better understand the issue, I carried out an empirical study on the type, frequency, and perpetuating factors of domestic violence. As part of my research, I visited burnt units across the city and interviewed survivors of acid attacks and ‘stove-burst accidents’. Four-weeks of planning, researching, and interviewing, culminated in a publication in a leading newspaper. My study revealed that most of the female victims were burnt by their husbands or in-laws in the so-called ‘stove-burst accidents’. While many of the victims refused to report the perpetrator and claimed that the burns were due to manufacturing defects in the stoves, such claims were flawed on two bases. First, the areas likely to be burnt in a genuine stove accident were limbs and abdomen, but most of the victims were admitted with burnt genitalia. Second, the position of the victim in the family (usually that of a wife) suggested that women were not burnt by mere accidents but were victims of domestic violence. Based on this study, I concluded that women subjected to domestic violence continue to suffer and protect their perpetrators in order to guard their family honor and respect their chauvinist husbands. The prevailing cultural norms determined the fate of these women.

Attending college in the United States added a new dimension to my perspectives. The economics classes offered in a liberal arts environment encouraged me to intellectually challenge myself, ask questions that would allow me to understand local and international policy issues, and tirelessly pursue their answers. With regards to gender issues, it made me realize that in this era of rapid globalisation where countries are stratified based on their varying social and economic development levels, the issue of gender inequality seems to surpass the developing/developed world dichotomy. It is truly global in nature and no single social or economic index explains it. In fact, by shaping expectations of a trait that is either masculine or feminine, and associating innate characteristics with each gender, the global society as a whole tends to view men and women through the lens of gender stereotypes. This gender stereotyping in turn rationalizes the socio-economic subordination of women.

I believe that there exists a strong correlation between a woman’s employment and her socio-economic prospects. What explains this relationship is the manner in which a woman’s access to outside income influences her position in family and society. Indeed, an economically unproductive woman becomes subjected to marital intimidation, vulnerability, and dependence, and in the case of the unfortunate women in Pakistan, even close-to-death domestic violence. The prevailing notion among the contemporary policy advisers in Pakistan, however, is that domestic violence is triggered by cultural and religious factors alone. Yet, a comprehensive socio-economic analysis reveals that the issue has its roots in socio-economics. In retrospect, most of the domestic violence documented in my earlier study stemmed from arguments over money between a husband and a wife or a row between a wife and a mother-in-law regarding dowry (monetary gifts from the bride’s family).
I strongly believe that the most effective way to curb violence against women begins with the understanding of the perpetuating factors of domestic violence and then addressing them through effective policy making. It is with this motivation that I returned to Pakistan where 80 percent of women experience domestic violence. While my particular interest lies in women’s advocacy in Pakistan, my Master’s program in Gender and Social Policy at the London School of Economics has allowed me to gain a multi-dimensional and global perspective on the study of gender. Equipped with the necessary set of analytical and theoretical skills required to prepare for a career as a gender specialist, I plan to now leverage my in-depth knowledge and passion for gender equality and women’s empowerment to prevent violence against women.

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