Monday, June 9, 2008

The plight of tens of thousands of abused Pakistani women doesn’t garner the headlines of Darfur’s genocide in Sudan, the sympathy afforded Burma’s forgotten victims or the outrage unleashed in New Orleans after Katrina. These battered women also don’t attract the outpouring of financial support that so many other recent global tragedies have drawn.

The reason is rooted deep in the war on terror, which has made the United States and other Western allies reticent to forcefully address issues of human rights in an unstable country strategically essential to the pursuit of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamist extremists, according to U.S. experts.

“We have looked at Pakistan as a strategic ally. So many of the other issues have been pushed aside,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a former Reagan administration defense official who now works as a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. “We aren’t focused on the other areas because we don’t want to antagonize the Pakistani government.

“We feel as though we can’t be too forceful, but we can, and the problem is, we aren’t,” Mr. Korb said.

The Washington Times reported Sunday on the burgeoning humanitarian crisis of women being burned with acid, beaten or put to death by husbands or relatives who claim they’ve shamed their families. The Times accessed many abuse victims inside the shelters where they sought safety, hidden from their own families and most of the world, too.

Pakistani government officials passed a law in 2006 to try to afford women more protections against abuse. But they acknowledge they don’t have the funds to provide the legal and humanitarian assistance to the vast majority of victims, leaving that job instead to a handful of charities who have been unable to draw enough attention or money to the cause.

U.S. government money to Pakistan has shifted from predominantly humanitarian aid before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to military and counterterrorism funding since, further complicating the efforts to aid and educate women. The majority of the $11 billion in post-September 11 U.S. aid to Pakistan has gone to the country’s military, leaving less than 10 percent of the funding for humanitarian needs, such as shelters, education and burn centers for those woman frequently scalded by acid as a punishment.

“One thing is clear, and that is that the U.S. is most concerned with national security issues, and they are willing to pour tremendous amounts of money into programs that are linked to national security,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, who specializes in Asia.

She said just a fraction of resources for other issues go to programs that protect the rights of women, promote good health care, consider the issue of poverty and broach other issues that pertain to women’s status. “Usually, these initiatives, while they receive some money, it is nothing compared to the amount going into military funds.”

Andrea G. Bottner, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Women’s Issues, said the United States and Pakistan have worked together successfully on efforts to empower Pakistani women.

She cites, for example, U.S. funding to combat gender-based violence through the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization - a nonprofit organization that works for the rights of marginalized rural women in the southern Punjab region of Pakistan.

This organization works with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit international relief and humanitarian aid organization that is based in the United States.

“This particular program supports capacity-building efforts that link the expertise of the International Rescue Committee together with the experience on the ground of the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization to fight gender-based violence.”

Currently, there is a women’s resource center being established at the Mukhtar Mai Organization that will provide female victims of abuse or violence with support, assistance, shelter and counseling.

“The administration remains committed to promoting women’s empowerment in Pakistan and across the globe,” said Ms. Bottner.

Hollywood and the wealthy philanthropists who typically help fund humanitarian-relief efforts have not been substantially attracted to the plight of Pakistan’s abused women. This, in turn, has overwhelmed the handful of charities providing help.

“If you look at Pakistan in particular, the number of women who have been burned - this aid requires really specialized medical care, and, for decades, women rights activists have been calling for more burn units and better care,” Human Rights Watch’s Ms. Varia said.

“Currently, burn units are far too few to meet the needs for women who experience this horrific form of violence. There are not enough services, so you find that people working on this issue are overwhelmed and have their hands full trying to supply services.”

This, she said, leaves little time for advocacy work to bring this violence to the world’s attention.

The solutions to Pakistan’s problem, experts say, can be found in the many other battles fought throughout history around the globe to procure equal rights for women.

“The experience in the women’s rights movement to effectively stop gender-based violence is that you need all the components: you need education, and knowing that females have access to job opportunities and increased status in their family and in their society,” Ms. Varia said.

It also is important that “both boys and girls learn peaceful methods to resolve conflict so they are not resorting to violence. And you need enforcement of the law, punishment of perpetrators and good services for the victims,” she said.

She said a strong message from the government, by passing laws that emphasize that violence is unacceptable and will be punished, is a key step in overcoming crimes against women.

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