Shattering Silence: Pakistan’s Journey Against Gender-Based Violence

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Shattering Silence: Pakistan’s Journey Against Gender-Based Violence

Over the last decade, Pakistan has built up its legal infrastructure to combat GBV, but implementation remains deeply flawed. Can civil society fill in the gaps?

Shattering Silence: Pakistan’s Journey Against Gender-Based Violence

Blue Veins organized a training program to educate women police officers about gender responsive policy in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, Pakistan.

Credit: Qamar Naseem, program coordinator, Blue Veins

In Pakistan, many women face violence from their partners or within their homes. Every day, we hear about incidents where women are harmed. Around 27 percent of women in Pakistan experience this kind of violence at some point in their lives, and only about half feel safe in their communities, as per the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

Legal Reforms

To address this issue, Pakistan has introduced legal changes and support services. Some of these include the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act of 2020, which defines domestic violence as different types of abuse, like physical or emotional harm. 

Other reforms aimed at tackling gender-based violence include the Women’s Protection Bill (2006) – an attempt to amend the heavily criticized 1979 Hudood Ordinance laws, which govern the punishment for rape and adultery in Pakistan – amendments to the Criminal Law Act (2016) to stiffen penalties for rape, and changes to the Penal Code (2004) to explicitly define so-called honor killings as murder.

Despite these efforts, implementation of these reforms remains weak, leaving many women without adequate protection.

Separately, each province has its own law designed to tackle the issue of gender-based violence. The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, was passed by the provincial assembly of Sindh in 2013. The law was a landmark development in the efforts to protect women against various forms of violence and gender-based discrimination, making such violence a criminal offense.

The Balochistan Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act was passed in February 2014 and applies to Balochistan, except for the tribal areas. Punjab passed its Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016. Finally, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Domestic Violence against Women (Prevention and Protection) Act was passed by the provincial assembly in 2021.

However, like the federal laws attempting to reduce gender-based violence, these provincial acts are hardly ever implemented and cater only to a certain subset of the population. For instance,  Balochistan Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act does not apply to the tribal areas. 

Challenges in Implementation of GBV Laws in Pakistan

Despite the introduction of legal reforms aimed at addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in Pakistan, the effectiveness of these measures remains a subject of scrutiny. While these legislative changes have provided a framework for defining and addressing domestic violence, their implementation has often fallen short of expectations.

One of the primary challenges hindering the effectiveness of these reforms is weak enforcement and implementation mechanisms. Despite having laws in place, many women continue to face barriers in accessing justice and protection from violence. 

This is exacerbated by a lack of awareness among law enforcement officials and judicial authorities about the provisions of these laws. Women make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s police force. In addition, cultural and societal norms – for instance, the culture of forgiveness in honor killings and “diyat” (blood money) that provides a path for “forgiving” a woman’s murderer – perpetuate gender inequality and tolerance of violence against women.

According to a report by the Aurat Foundation, there were 297 reported cases of violence against women in 25 districts across the four provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan from January to December 2020. The main types of GBV reported in newspapers were: murder, abduction/kidnapping, rape/gang rape, “honor killing,” suicide, and others (including domestic violence, dowry disputes, acid attacks, inheritance issues, child marriage, and forced marriage). 

The most cases (57 percent) were reported in Punjab. Sindh had the second highest number with 27 percent, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 8 percent, Gilgit-Baltistan with 6 percent, and Balochistan with 2 percent.

Support Services for GBV Survivors in Pakistan

There are many organizations that lend support to GBV survivors in Pakistan. For instance, the Aurat Foundation addresses gender-based violence by raising awareness in communities at the village level, enhancing service delivery and building linkages at the district level, and advocating for policy changes at the provincial level.

The “Aurat Foundation has led successful large-scale BCC [behavioral change communication] campaigns combating GBV by mitigating harmful stereotypes and discrimination against [any] specific group due to gender,” said Muneezeh Saeed Khan, resident director in Karachi for the Aurat Foundation. The foundation helped “sensitize” citizens to related issues “through public-private partnerships, community awareness sessions, seminars, conferences, conventions, walks, street theaters, TV shows, animations, public service messages, FM radio talks and disseminating IEC [information, education, and communication] material.”

Additionally, organizations like Rozan [0304-111-1741], AGHS Legal Aid Cell [042-35842256-7], Legal Aid Society [+92-21-35634112], and War Against Rape (WAR) provide free crisis counseling and support through dedicated helplines.

When it comes to psychosocial support, organizations like Sahil provide in-person, telephonic, email, and outreach counseling and therapy to survivors of gender-based violence. 

Pakistan also has grassroots organizations and community-based initiatives, such as Bedari, Girls Not Brides, MenEngage Pakistan Alliance, Women’s Action Forum (WAF), Shirkah Gah, Shirakat, and Blue Veins that offer empowerment workshops, and skills training programs to GBV survivors. These efforts are crucial in creating a supportive network for survivors and fostering community resilience.

“Blue Veins offers a 24/7 toll free helpline for survivors to reach out, connecting them with free legal aid and service providers,” Qamar Naseem, program coordinator at Blue Veins, told The Diplomat.

“The organization also conducts training for police and other service providers on gender-sensitive policing and SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] response mechanisms and collaborates with religious leaders to leverage their influence in promoting messages of non-violence, gender equality, and respect for women’s rights within communities.” 

“The organization undertakes research to better understand the dynamics of SGBV, identify gaps in existing services, and develop evidence-based interventions,” Naseem added. “Blue Veins also actively advocates and lobbies with policymakers to enact and enforce laws that protect women and girls from violence and ensure justice for victims.”

However, these organizations face many challenges in their fight against gender-based violence in Pakistan. “One of the primary challenges is the deeply ingrained cultural and societal norms that perpetuate gender discrimination and violence against women,” Naseem shared. “Another major challenge is the lack of adequate funding and resources. Securing sustainable financial support for long-term projects is difficult, which hampers the organization’s ability to scale its operations and reach more survivors.” 

These are the same problems that prevent full implementation of Pakistan’s laws on GBV. And that, in turn, poses further hurdles for civil society. “Legal and institutional barriers also pose significant obstacles,” Naseem said. “The slow pace of legal reforms and the lack of enforcement of existing laws make it difficult to ensure justice for survivors. Furthermore, the bureaucracy and inefficiencies within the legal system often result in delayed responses to cases of violence, discouraging survivors from seeking help.”

The battle against gender-based violence in Pakistan is far from over. The existing laws, while comprehensive on paper, suffer from weak enforcement and societal resistance, leaving many women vulnerable and without adequate protection.

To create a violence-free society, Pakistan needs a multifaceted approach that includes strong legal frameworks, effective implementation, societal change, and continuous support for survivors. The government, civil society, and the international community must collaborate to protect and empower women, ensuring they can live free from fear and violence.