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Last week Pakistan’s Imran Khan declared victory to an uneasy nation reeling from election violence and vote tampering allegations, promising to address economic disparity and the rule of law. “We will set an example of how the law is the same for everyone,” said Khan in his first televised post-election address. “If the West is ahead of us today, it is because their laws are not discriminatory. This will be our biggest guiding principle.”
Despite Khan’s campaign statements disparaging working women and mothers, the policy platform released ahead of the election by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party specifically addressed gender parity, promising initiatives on women’s education, economic opportunity, healthcare, and legal protection. As it becomes increasingly certain that Khan will form a new coalition government, he has a powerful opportunity to deliver on his party’s platform and further Pakistani women’s workplace safety -- and the economic growth of the entire nation.
We must keep you women from work, because us men are dangerous
The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report ranks Pakistan 143 out of 144 countries in the gender equality index, due to its abysmal performance in women’s economic participation, political empowerment, and enrollment in higher education.
Why aren’t women in the office or university classroom? One reason is the near non-existent enforcement of progressive laws to ensure their safety. In Pakistan there is no such thing as a safe space for women and girls – gender-based violence is prevalent both inside and outside the home. In schools and workplaces, women and girls face everything from groping to demands for sexual favors in exchange for promotions. Even female legislators are not immune. In parliament women are routinely jeered at and criticized for their appearance. And it’s even harder for the many women outside of Pakistan’s metropolitan centers.
"Economically independent, empowered, and working women in small cities and rural areas are considered to have immoral character and are not given much respect in society due to religious debates on her role,” says Noreen Naseer, a professor at Peshawar University, originally from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). “Even if a woman works in an 'acceptable' job, she will face subtle forms of harassment and if she chooses to enter a field that is traditionally male, such as politics, journalism, or activism, then she will face many challenges."
According to the World Bank, gender-based harassment and violence against women comes with a real cost to Pakistan’s economic growth, contributing to only 22% of women participating in the workforce, compared to 46% of women globally. A report released last month by the International Monetary Fund found that closing the gender gap in labor force participation could boost Pakistan's GDP by 30 percent.
“There is a very strong link between gender-based harassment and women’s economic empowerment in Pakistan,” says lawyer and Digital Rights Pakistan Founder Nighat Dad. “Men don’t let women go work in offices or allow them to participate in the public space because of how other men will treat them. Men say ‘for your protection, we cannot allow you to go work’ in the offices of government departments, or practice as a lawyer or in the hospital as a doctor.”
“The problem is Pakistani women are succeeding despite the system,” says Dawn newspaper columnist and author Rafia Zakaraia. “The system continues to be extremely exclusionary and not particularly interested in making the workplace safe beyond these panaceas, like we’re going to enforce the Islamic code of conduct and put women and men in separate sides of an office. When you put women in separate spaces, they wind up denied the best opportunities they are due. The answer is to give them recourse.”
Making the workplace safe through the police station and courtroom
Women advocates, lawyers and lawmakers have won historic fights for new laws to reduce harassment of and violence against women, including a 2006 amendment to Pakistan’s Penal Code on the protection of women, the 2010 Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, and the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which criminalized cyber harassment.
Yet Pakistan still struggles to enforce laws that protect women against violence in the workplace and spaces critical to women progressing in leadership, like universities. Even where laws exist, justice is often miscarried in the face of “customary law.” Pakistan’s constitutional and formal court protections aren’t implemented due to everything from fear of reprisal to traditional “jirgas” in tribal areas that issue judgments in ways unchanged since before Independence.
“Legislation has helped address serious issues related to gender-based violence and played a role of deterrence,” says Nasser, whose own cousin was murdered in a FATA “honor” killing. “These are milestones in terms of lawmakers’ commitment to ensure protection of women rights, but have loopholes that fail to address the issue of gender-based violence in rural areas.”
Women experience enforcement failures from the moment they come forward to report harassment and gender-based crimes to police. From interviews to medical examinations, police officers often don’t have relevant training and even refuse to prioritize collecting evidence that can lead to prosecution. Victims and their families face social stigma and rumors of past relationships can result in no punishment for perpetrators.
As a result, many Pakistani women don’t report crimes at all, withdraw complaints due to pressure from their family or community, or simply are unable to win their cases in a system that is rigged against them.
“There has been progressive legislation, spearheaded by women politicians at the provincial and federal levels, to deal with harassment and violence against women,” says Lahore lawyer Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Pakistan. “But there is a question of enforceability that should have happened really already. When the state has anti-women laws, it poisons the well.”
The price of pursuing a legal career can be violence
There are few cases that illustrate the challenges to Pakistani women who seek to pursue traditionally male careers than that of law student Khadija Siddiqi. Stabbed 23 times while picking her sister up from school by a male law school classmate whose advances she had declined, she refused to be silenced. She pursued her case in court and used the press and social media to aid her campaign, with the hashtag #KhadijaTheFighter garnering nearly 2 million views.
Her attacker, the son of a prominent lawyer, was sentenced to seven years in prison but then acquitted in 2018 by a higher court. Siddiqi said her case showed the overwhelming “stigma against women in the justice system, in which the onus is on the woman to prove she is the victim.”
Without basic protection for their safety in higher learning and traditionally male career fields, Pakistani advocates say women won’t be able to fully participate in professional workplaces and achieve economic agency.
“When women do speak up about harassment, our courts and law enforcement do not support them,” says Dad, “And then men say ‘See, I told you, these spaces are not safe for you. You sit at home within the four walls of our house and then you are secure’. If women speak up, they will lose the freedom and liberation of work.”
Expanding provincial laws nationally that protect working women
In addition to enforcing existing laws, Pakistan’s new government can play a powerful role in women’s workplace safety by encouraging all provincial governments to implement successful legal frameworks from other provinces.
On March 8, 2013, the Sindh Provincial Assembly celebrated International Women’s Day by unanimously adopting the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill. A coalition of civil society leaders, led by the Aurat Foundation, and female legislators campaigned for the Act’s passage for five years. The Act articulates an inclusive definition of domestic violence that includes “economic abuse” for the first time, and established a prison sentence of up to two years for perpetrators.
And advocates achieved a big victory in Punjab in 2016, when their Assembly addressed gaps in the Pakistani legal code through the passage of the Protection of Women Against Violence Act. Conservative religious organizations like the Council of Islamic Ideology alleged the laws were “un-Islamic” and “promulgated to accomplish the West’s agenda to destroy the family system in Pakistan.” The Act firmly established that violence against women is a criminal, and not a domestic or family, issue.
“Most previous drafts focused only on domestic violence, but I wanted to make sure that all types of violence came into play — sexual violence, cyber violence, economic abuse, psychological abuse,” said Salman Sufi, Director General at the Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit of Punjab in a Council on Foreign Relations interview. “In order to make women an effective force in the economic development of Pakistan, we have to make sure that first they are protected.”
Instead of being turned away from police stations when reporting violence, the law gave women victims new provincial government support and protection through criminal punishments and civil remedies, from sentencing, to legal and medical compensation, to GPS monitoring of perpetrators.
Opportunity to expand economic and political progress for women and all of Pakistan
Women in Pakistan achieved important milestones during election week, with reports of women voting for the first time since Independence due to new legal protections and the nomination of Justice Syeda Tahira Safdar as the Chief Justice of the Balochistan High Court.
From increasing the number of female police officers for investigation of gender-based violence to expanding the capacity of courts to address harassment and abuse, Pakistan’s likely new prime minister already has a party platform of promises to deliver legal and economic empowerment for women.
As Khan said in his speech Thursday “We have the second youngest population in the world ... they need jobs.” Let’s hope that also means jobs for Pakistan’s millions of talented women who are ready to work.