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The forgotten women

Women in South Punjab do not know what International Women’s Day is

The forgotten women

Flames had engulfed her body and all this was happening in the presence of police and many other spectators. She had put herself to fire in front of Muzaffargarh police station where she had gone many times to seek justice. Every time she went there she was turned away on different grounds. Her complaints fell on deaf ears and she was also made fun of. There were policemen who would ask her to forget the incident and do not bring humiliation to her family by making it public.

This is the story of Amina Bibi who belonged to Muzaffargarh. This 18-year-old was allegedly kidnapped and gang raped by Nadir Khan and his four accomplices when she was coming home from college. Amina lodged an FIR against the rapists. Police Investigation Officer Zulfiqar carried out hasty and faulty investigation and declared the main accused, Nadir Khan, innocent.

When Nadir was released from police custody, Amina lost all hope in the system. She went to the police station and stood outside. Before anybody could notice her she sprinkled kerosene oil on her body and lit fire with the help of a matchstick. People tried to rescue her but she received major burns.

Amina was admitted to Nishtar Hospital Multan in critical condition where she breathed her last. Her death left many dark spots on the male dominated society which thinks it is quite normal for women to become victims of violence. They are vulnerable when they are outside home and more vulnerable when they are inside home. This mentality exists all over the country but South Punjab is a place where such incidents are very high in number. The male members wait for opportunity to kill their women or beat them miserably just to prove that they know how to defend their honour.

The purpose to celebrate the International Women’s Day this day is to remind the world and women about the rights women enjoy. But in South Punjab the need is to first tell these women that they have rights.

Hussain Naqi, a senior journalist and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), believes that access to justice is always conditioned with access to police stations and courts. Women from South Punjab have no access to these. He tells TNS that in this area justice is still the domain of illegal institutions like panchayat and jirga. How can a woman get her rights in the presence of panchayat in a fully male-dominated society?

Naqi says feudals do not accept the rights of women. “How can they allow women to visit police stations where even the rates of filing FIRs are fixed? Nothing moves without the involvement of MPAs and MNAs,” he adds.

He says domestic violence is traditionally accepted in South Punjab and no woman knocks at the police station because of fear of humiliation. “Law enforcement agencies will have to change their attitude towards women who cannot be ignored anymore. States cannot flourish by keeping their women oppressed,” he adds.

A social worker who belongs to a backward area in Rajanpur says the police is totally helpless here. The feudals can get them transferred any time so they have to obey and do whatever they want them to do. The oppressors and rapists are influential and get released because of their connections with the feudals.

He says it is for this reason that incidents like Mukhtaran Mai’s gangrape, cutting of ears and nose of women, forced marriages with minor girls, karokari are all found here. Is asking the rapist to marry the victim justice? Or asking the relatives of a rape victim to rape women relatives of the accused, justice?

He says the feudals do not mostly seek development funds from the government as they are anti-development. They only ask for powers to rule their people, twist the police and justice system and decide the fate of people living as their slaves, he adds. That is why development budget allocation has always remained low.

HRCP data from January 1, 2014 to August 30, 2014 shows that during this period 432 women were gang raped, 682 women were raped, 38 women were set on fire, 33 women were killed in acid attacks, heads of five women were shaved, 280 women were kidnapped for rape, 675 women were killed in the name of honour and 579 women were murdered on other issues. Expectedly, most of these cases happened in South Punjab.

Fauzia Viqar, Chairperson Punjab Commission on the Status of Women says, “Violence against women is culturally accepted in South Punjab and domestic violence is commonly practiced. Mostly women are illiterate and unaware of their rights. Those who are aware of rights are exploited emotionally,” she adds.

She shares the reported data of district Rajanpur and district Multan in South Punjab. In district Rajanpur, 79 women were raped, 10 killed in the name of so-called honour and 16 women were beaten miserably. While in district Multan, 138 women were raped, 67 were killed and 44 were beaten. It is surprising that the ratio of violence against women is less in Rajanpur as compared to Multan and other districts. “One reason for this situation is that a woman visiting a police station is considered bad in South Punjab,” she says.

Punjab government has established help desks in every division of Punjab to help women victims of violence. The victims can register their complaints by calling at free helpline. The Commission will help them out. Crisis centres have also been set up in Punjab to help out women.

It is a pity that women are suffering when there are hundreds of women parliamentarians sitting inside the national and provincial assemblies. The government of Punjab is not inactive and a lot is happening, says Dr Najma, MPA from PML-N. She says women MPAs are playing a key role in eliminating violence against women. She says they have struggled and got a helpline 0800-93372 established where women police officers listen to the complaints and respond. This is a toll-free number.

If rape had taken place in Lahore or Rawalpindi the chief minister would have taken notice within no time and media would have taken notice of it. NGOs and civil society would have protested and held placards in front of the Punjab Assembly as it was seen in 5 years old Sumbal rape case.

But the case of Amina Bibi came to the CM’s notice only after her death. While in the big cities placards catch attraction, in backward areas of Southern Punjab burning bodies of victims serve the same purpose.

Note: This article only appears in the online version of The News on Sunday.

Sher Ali Khalti

sher ali khalti
The author works for The News. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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