- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan | Twelve-year-old Ahsan takes the hand of his blind mother, Naeema Bibi, to lead her out of their home and to the street to hail a taxi.

Mrs. Bibi hasn’t always been blind. Three years ago, after her husband repeatedly beat her, she asked for a divorce because he was not providing for her or their children.

His response was immediate and brutal - an attack with sulphuric acid that disfigured her face beyond recognition and left other parts of her body a mass of scars. And, she was blind.

Her husband fled and was never arrested. Now, Mrs. Bibi, 40, depends solely on her two sons and one daughter to feed her, travel with her into town, even take her to the bathroom.

Mrs. Bibi is a victim of a silent epidemic inside Pakistan that has caused tens of thousands of women to be subjected to abuse, even death, in the name of preserving a family’s honor in a male-dominated society. Asking for a divorce, refusing to marry a man of their parents’ choice or being the victim of a rape can trigger such retribution.

Audio Slide Show:Inside the Shelter

The deepening humanitarian crisis, mostly unnoticed by the Western world, is laid bare by the numbers:

Between 70 percent and 90 percent of the 83 million women in Pakistan have been attacked or suffered other forms of domestic abuse by husbands, future husbands or other family members, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

More than 4,100 “honor” killings - the slaying of a woman by relatives who think she has shamed the family - occurred in the country between 2001 and 2004, according to Pakistan’s Interior Ministry.

Nearly 290 women were killed and 750 permanently injured or disfigured as a result of acid attacks in 2002 alone, according to HRW.

Girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 25 are the most common victims. The motives of the husbands or male relatives vary: revenge, obsession, jealousy, suspected infidelity, sexual noncooperation, simply being told “no.”

The women often are ostracized by their families after the attacks and unable to find jobs. They are confined to their homes in social isolation.

“Gender based violence and horrific examples like honor-killing are common in too many societies that still accept discrimination, exploitation and violence against women,” said Andrea Bottner, the director of the Office of International Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State. “In too many parts of the world, women still do not have full protection under the law or equal access to justice. This is unacceptable.”

Deep roots

Shahnaz Bhukari, founder of the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA) that provides help to Mrs. Bibi and other abused women, thinks the lack of attention is a result of Pakistan’s unstable government.

“Unfortunately, we have been destabilized by international interferences since Pakistan has been established,” she said. “That instability has made it a struggle to gain a political party that concentrates on social issues such as women’s rights and domestic violence, which is a major issue in our country.”

Some, however, say the roots go deeper into both Islamic and Pakistani culture.

The practice of honor killing, though not limited to Islam, retains support in Muslim countries, where the majority of such attacks take place and where their numbers are on the rise. The attacks also occur in immigrant communities in the West: HRW reports cases in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr. Stephen Philip Cohen, a Brookings Institution specialist on Pakistan, India and South Asia, says much of the treatment of women has to do with the nature of Pakistani society.

“You could argue that it is extenuated by the role of Islam, but much of Pakistan still has male-dominated peasant societies that the country is currently growing out of,” he said. “The status of women across Pakistan varies enormously from the tribal areas and villages to the cities. Women’s access to education and commodities are uneven throughout the country.”

Women in Pakistan in some ways are treated as second-class citizens, particularly in the rural areas where many of these crimes occur. Access to education is limited, especially in poverty-stricken rural areas. Work opportunities are scarce outside of cities. Women often are expected to stay home to care for the family while the man works. And, the legal system provides them little protection.

“The violence against women in Pakistan does have a religious covering. Though our religion is peaceful and gives equal rights to women in the Koran, the traditions and customs of our society, unfortunately, give women a weak place in society,” Ms. Bhukari said.

Women have long faced bias in the legal and justice systems. Arguably the most heavily criticized Pakistani laws to be created are the Hudood Ordinances, a set of Shariah laws enacted in 1979, 32 years after the establishment of the country, by the president, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.

A rape victim could be prosecuted for adultery under those laws if she could not produce four male witnesses to the assault. The maximum punishment for a victim accused of this crime: death by stoning.

In 2006, the National Assembly of Pakistan passed the Women’s Protection Bill to amend the Hudood Ordinance laws and provide women some protection.

However, women continue to face discriminatory practices in the legal and criminal justice systems. Domestic violence is often dismissed as a private dispute, and women frequently are pressured to reconcile with abusive spouses or relatives.

“Our unstable government has never been able to set up a proper justice system for victims of violence,” Ms. Bhukari said. “We have a weak justice system, and because of this, the criminals who commit violence against women often are not punished. This gives a big boost to the male gender to be abusive and violent to women.”

The government responds

The government cites the Women’s Protection Bill of 2006 as evidence of both progress and its commitment to addressing the issue.

“This bill was a big deal for women in Pakistan and removed many problems women were facing in the country,” said Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the Pakistan Embassy’s first secretary of political affairs. “It has been welcomed all over by Pakistani women and was something that was supported by all parties and an issue on which all political parties worked together.”

She said the government is hampered in its efforts by a lack of funds, leaving much of the response to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as charities.

“We are not a very rich country, so it is very difficult for the government to finance institutions [such as shelters],” Ms. Baloch said. “The programs and shelters for women in Pakistan are usually run by NGOs in close coordination with the Ministry of Women’s Development. The government coordinates with them and shows them what the problem areas are and where women need help. It is a partnership with local and foreign NGOs.”

The Ministry of Women Development operates 10 “crisis centers” throughout the country to provide relief and support for the survivors of violence. The centers offer services such as legal and medical aid, social counseling and investigation of cases of violence.

More women’s rights legislation is planned but sits behind a constitutional amendment package and budget measures in priority.

Inspired to help

In 2003, Masarrat Misbah, inspired by a visit from a girl injured in an attack, decided to find a way to help.

Ms. Misbah, the owner of a chain of beauty salons across Pakistan called Depilex, sat working at her desk late one evening when a girl approached and asked if Ms. Misbah could fix her face.

Ms. Misbah looked up and couldn’t believe what she saw: The girl’s face was completely disfigured by acid. There was no way, Ms. Misbah knew, she could refuse to help.

When news got out that she was helping the girl, three more came to her.

“If I can help one, I can help three more,” she recalled thinking.

Ms. Misbah teamed up with Smileagain, an Italian charity, to create the Depilex Smileagain Foundation.

The foundation provides reconstructive surgery by a team of Italian doctors that visits Pakistan four times a year to operate on women left disfigured by acid attacks or badly burned by kerosene poured over their bodies and set ablaze.

Ms. Misbah never would have believed that so many women were victims of this kind of crime. She quickly learned otherwise: 42 women showed up at her salon when she first advertised the foundation.

Today, Ms. Misbah has 240 girls and women awaiting surgery, and in each case all the burns were intentional.

One woman was attacked by her husband-to-be after refusing to go out with him without the permission of a parent. Another was burned by relatives in an attempt to kill her so their younger son could have a piece of land.

Ms. Misbah said she has met girls who were burned for delivering a stillborn baby or for not producing boys.

Most attacks, she says, are just the result of saying “no” to a husband or male family member.

In addition to offering medical treatment, Ms. Misbah hopes to raise enough money to build a shelter in Lahore where victims can recover and learn vocational skills. Otherwise, she says, they are treated like outcasts.

“There are currently only five burn centers in hospitals throughout the country. If the women survive acid burns, many die after because of infections,” she said.

According to HRW, an estimated 74 percent of burn victims in Pakistan die because the country’s hospitals are not adequately equipped to treat them.

Many shelters for victims of other forms of domestic violence will not house burn victims because of the risk of infection.

Her agency is short on funds, but Ms. Misbah provides as much help as she can for these women - even if it means opening her own home. Many victims come from poor families in rural areas where hygiene is not adequate. Ms. Misbah takes those women into her own house during their recovery.

“My only regret in life is: Why did I not take notice a long time back?” Ms. Misbah said.

The acid used in such attacks is easy to obtain, she said, and convictions are hard to secure.

“For only 25-30 rupees [about 40 to 50 cents] you can have a lethal weapon in your hands. There is no implication of the law, and it usually does not result in capital punishment,” she said.

In fact, there is less than a 4 percent conviction rate for perpetrators of such attacks.

Men often get the benefit of doubt in Pakistani courts, and police often are reluctant to interfere in cases of domestic violence, which they see as a family matter.

Protecting victims

Often victims have nowhere to turn but shelters, or “dar-ul-amans.”

These safe havens, however, are few. In 2002, only an estimated 13 state-run women’s shelters existed in the country along with six run privately by women’s groups.

The PWA was forced to close its shelter last year because of a lack of funds. At the time of the closing, 32 women with their children lived at the facility. Ms. Bhukari says the Pakistani government has promised to open additional shelters, but that the promises often are empty.

So she has begun again to do it herself, seeking donors and funds in determination to open another shelter in Rawalpindi.

Women gain access to these sanctuaries through court orders. Some are forced to enter a shelter by families that have shunned them. Others come on their own, fearing for their lives.

If a woman refuses to marry a man of her parents’ choosing, marries a man she has chosen on her own or seeks a divorce from her husband - even an abusive one - her family may deem her action dishonorable, perhaps even punishable by death.

Some have been charged with adultery after being raped. Others have been killed by relatives after being raped, since such an act is said to shame the family.

Many more killings go unreported because they occur inside the house, and almost all go unpunished. A set of Islamic laws known as the Qias and Diyat Ordinances make it possible for crimes of honor to be forgiven or pardoned by relatives of the victim in exchange for monetary compensation.

Because a member of the family is usually the one who has killed, few are ever punished or even charged.

Safe in Lahore

One young woman at a government-funded shelter in Lahore - she, along with other women there, did not want to be identified out of fear for their safety - said it should be her right to marry someone she loves. Instead, she said, she must remain hidden away because her family and society considers that to be sinful.

“The number one reason women are in the shelter is they have been betrayed by their husbands,” says one of the women who runs the shelter, who requested anonymity for fear that husbands of the women she is helping may seek to punish her.

But it’s not just husbands - family members also sometimes betray their relatives.

A 14-year-old girl entered the shelter because her parents wanted to kill her after she married someone of her own choosing and became pregnant.

“If you love someone, and your parents say no then you can’t be with them. It’s like a sin if you have a love marriage,” said another girl, who married a man she loved but was rejected by her dad because he was of a lower class.

Another girl had been kept in a prisonlike room for a month by her parents because she refused to marry the man they wanted.

They come to the shelters alone, some with a child and all with little hope.

State or government-run shelters, though created as safe havens, often run under prisonlike conditions. Once inside, the women are nearly cut off from the outside world.

They arrive as strangers and have only themselves and those at the shelter to rely on. They are separated into rooms according to their legal circumstances. The women cannot leave the grounds without permission from a shelter official, and they are searched both when they leave and when they return.

At government-run shelters, all cases must be referred to Pakistani courts, and women are not allowed to move out without court approval.

Because lawyers are costly and can only be arranged by relatives or the government, many women have little choice but to stay for months or even years.

Legal limbo

Many of the women enter the shelter because they want a divorce and are threatened with retaliation by their husbands or their husband’s family.

One woman went to the shelter because her husband would not grant her a divorce, and her husband’s family says they will kill her if she marries another man.

Even if a woman is married to an abusive man, a divorce still is considered a sin or dishonorable - and not just to the wife and husband but to their parents and siblings as well.

A young woman at the shelter had lived in America for over five years, said, “I want to go back to America. There you have your own life. Here you have to depend on others.”

Having relied on their families or husbands their entire lives, many of the women now will have to learn to survive on their own.

They are required to study vocational skills such as sewing and embroidery for several hours each day in hopes they will be self-sufficient once they leave.

Lack of aid

Ms. Misbah says she still has a hard time believing that such gender-related violence happens in her country with such frequency.

She often asks herself, is it the feudal system in Pakistan? Is it the lack of knowledge of Islam? Is it the lack of education?

Many inside and outside Pakistan blame the latter. The Education Ministry of Pakistan puts the literacy rate of the country at 46 percent. Some, however, are considered literate if they can just write their names.

Only 26 percent of women are literate, and many have little concept of their rights or of making their own choices.

In rural and tribal areas, where a large percentage of domestic violence occurs and where strict interpretations of Islam often are practiced, the female literacy rate is between 3 percent and 8 percent.

There are about 163,000 primary schools in Pakistan, of which only 40,000 cater to girls. The current enrollment for girls is about 42 percent.

Funding and continuing aid is a major problem for Depilex Smileagain Foundation, the PWA and women’s shelters across Pakistan.

Since 2001, the United States has given about $11 billion in aid to Pakistan.

Most of that, however, has gone to the military and its fight in the war on terror. Less than 10 percent has gone to development and humanitarian assistance. The breakdown was almost opposite before 2001.

For the women seeking shelter, the challenge is to learn to trust again when they finally leave the protection of the building, to let go of a troubled past and find the optimism to return to life in a country where many of the problems facing women remain unsolved.

“For the elites of Pakistan, this is not a high-priority issue,” Dr. Cohen said. “Women from educated families in Pakistan do OK. But state capacity is very limited in Pakistan. It is hard to go into villages and change the way the people have been doing things for so many years.”

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