Honour’ in shame
A RECENT report by the Sindh Police has put into perspective the extent to which our society — including the criminal justice system itself — continues to justify, condone and encourage violence against women under the guise of tradition and faith. According to the report, in the past five years, 510 women and 259 men have been murdered in cold blood on the pretext of ‘honour’ across the province. Out of the total number of cases, 649 reached the police. However, only 19 cases — a paltry 2pc — resulted in awarding of punishment to perpetrators. The courts acquitted the suspects in 136 other cases, while the remaining 494 cases still await trial. Though these figures might reflect only a fraction of the actual number of such murders, they are enough to expose our hypocrisy. We have laws but little to no implementation. Those who make these laws are often found advocating for or even participating in the very ‘traditions’ that violate women’s right to life and bodily autonomy. Members of the public want rule of law, yet many end up pardoning family members who murder female relatives. Worse still are those who twist a religion that considers murder as among the greatest of sins in order to justify killing women.
It is hardly surprising, then, that this dissonance reflects in the anti-‘honour’ killing law enacted in 2016. Though a major achievement in symbolic terms, as a legal instrument, it represents only an incremental step towards justice for those killed in the name of ‘honour’. The criminal amendment still permits family members of victims to ‘forgive’ their killers, while leaving it at the courts’ discretion to award punishment despite such pardons. Such a loophole — one among many — allows for the subjective interpretation and application of the law by police officers, prosecutors and judges alike. The report highlights these legal lacunae, along with faulty investigations, as well as collusion between prosecutors, witnesses and suspects, as being the main reasons behind the low conviction rate in ‘honour’ killings.
Besides, passing legislation is hardly enough to effect change in societal attitudes and break the vicious cycle of gender-based violence. Apart from improving the law and sensitising agents of the justice system, there is a dire need for comprehensive community outreach to combat the tacit acceptance of such ‘traditions’ in our society. In this regard, the media — particularly the Sindhi media — has played a commendable role, first by exposing and then continuing to shine a spotlight on such grotesque crimes. But the media’s job is only to inform, and change is only possible if the state proactively assumes its responsibility to vigorously prosecute and punish perpetrators as well as their abettors. Continued apathy in this regard only serves to endorse anti-women practices such ‘honour’ killings, which are in total violation of fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution.
THE austerity measures imposed by the government for the current fiscal year has compelled it to significantly slash already reduced public development spending. According to the published data, the federal government and provinces have spent less than a third of the Rs1.6tr budgeted development expenditure during the first half of the present year. In a rapidly slowing economy, development cuts mean more misery and fewer jobs for the people. It also means less money for public services like education, healthcare, clean drinking water, sanitation, etc — which has a direct impact on low-income groups as well as on the country’s economic infrastructure. The cuts have been necessitated by what is described as arguably the most crippling economic downturn in the country’s history, with the FBR’s failure to broaden its net and meet revenue targets only further complicating the situation. The rationale of austerity is to slash the country’s massive public debt, which has now grown to 85pc of the GDP, and bridge the fiscal deficit, which stands at 8.9pc. Yet so far, the government’s finance managers seem to be struggling to get a firm grip on their fiscal troubles. Even if they do manage to succeed, pressures on the budget are likely to continue for the next few years. In other words, going forward, public development expenditure may be slashed further — at the expense of public welfare.
As the government seeks to deliver on its commitments under the ongoing IMF programme, it must ask itself whether it is really a good idea to axe development spending in order to reduce public expenditure. The IMF itself has recently advised Pakistan to fully utilise its development funds in order to prop up the faltering economy. The public development stimulus has acquired greater significance given the fact that measures put in place to stabilise and document the economy have effectively sucked liquidity out of it and led to stagnation in private investment. The economic growth rate is feared to contract to below 2pc — potentially wiping out 1.2m jobs and plunging 1.8m more Pakistanis into poverty by the end of this fiscal year. It is true that the cash-starved government is in a bind considering the enormous fiscal challenges it is faced with. But there is still the option of slashing unproductive expenditure and diverting funds for development in order to support growth and lessen the impact of its stabilisation policies on ordinary people.
A humanitarian response
WHEN news of a dangerous new virus — now named Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation — first broke, governments around the world rushed to evacuate their citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.
In contrast, Pakistan requested the many hundreds of its citizens studying in Wuhan to stay put until further notice.
Read: Families of Pakistanis stranded in China reject govt briefing, demand students’ return
At the time, it was thought to be the right decision, as little was known about the disease and how it spread, and as the already burdened health facilities here were deemed ill-equipped to treat infected patients, let alone manage a potential outbreak. But many weeks have since passed, with the students and their families growing increasingly anxious, desperately beseeching the government to allow them to return home — only to, at best, receive noncommittal responses or, at worst, have their cries fall on deaf ears.
The situation is not just a health issue but also a humanitarian one. The government must allow these citizens to return home, while simultaneously ensuring that appropriate quarantine protocols are implemented upon their arrival.
China, which has constructed hospitals virtually overnight to manage its outbreak, can even be asked to lend its expertise and support.
Besides, has the government taken serious, substantive steps to ensure treatment of infected patients were the virus to emerge in this country, despite efforts to keep Pakistanis in China at bay?
Nearly all our neighbouring countries have recorded cases of Covid-19. This week, two elderly people in Iran died from the virus. India confirmed three cases in Kerala; all have fully recovered due to timely medical intervention.
Earlier this month, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said that Pakistan now had the ability to diagnose Covid-19 — so why is the government still dithering? How it plans to address a potential outbreak has not been made clear yet. What is clear, however, is that citizens cannot just be abandoned in a foreign land indefinitely. A plan for their repatriation must be announced soon.