Violence Against Women: Actual Situation In Pakistan And Effective Measures To Fight Against it


Violence Against Women: Actual Situation In Pakistan And Effective Measures To Fight Against it


“No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut within the four walls of the houses as prisoners… There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.”[1] – Muhammad Ali Jinnah

The ideology of liberalism and anation based on egalitarianism,as envisaged by the founder of Pakistan in his above quoted speech, remains far from reality 68 years after the birth of Pakistan.As a misogynistic, patriarchal and male dominated society,women’s rights in Pakistan depict a horrifying story of regression and stalemate.Global headlines featuring events in Pakistan, such as the murder of human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, Malala Yousafzai(the Noble Peace Prize winner) surviving an attack in 2012 by Mullah Fazlullah’sTehreek-e-Taliban Pakistanin Swat and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar winning documentary about acid attacks- Saving Face,all echo with a common theme – denial of women’s rights in Pakistan.

Gender disparity in Pakistan is evident by the country’s ranking as 141st out of 142 countries in terms of economic opportunity and political participation for women[2].This gender based marginalization and undermining of quintessential equality of men and women makes women in Pakistan vulnerable to violence. This kind of violence has gender specificity where the perpetrators are usually male and underlying such violence is the belief of superiority of men over women. The definition of violence against women adopted by the United Nations’ Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women encapsulates the gendered nature of this abuse defining it as, “any act of gender based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life[3].

In Pakistan violence against women has been categorized into crimes including, abduction/kidnapping, murder, domestic violence, suicide, honour killing, rape/gang rape, sexual assault, acid throwing and burning[4].As per the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 597 women and girls were gang raped, 828 raped and 36 stripped in public in Pakistan in the year 2014[5]. The Aurat Foundation estimated a total of 7,852 cases of violence against women were reported across Pakistan in 2013[6].

Part I: Causes of violence against women

Economic, social and cultural biases against women

In Pakistan women are excluded from social, economic and political arenas. Traditionally women are expected to be obedient home-makers and as a result few women receive formal education and have skilled jobs[7]. Economically most women are dependent on small scale trading or agricultural production for their earnings and have limited ownership of any assets.The latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey[8] (PDHS) concluded that only 11% of ever married women owned a house, either alone or jointly, 4% owned land and 38% of married women participated in decision making with their husbands in their households[9]. Further, access to social services such as education, health facilities, water, sanitation and energy sources is limited[10].

In tribal cultures justice is dispensed by informal legal systems known as Jirgas or Panchayats which are biased against women[11]. Such systems are men dominated with no representation of women[12]. The discrimination suffered by women at the hands of such systems is evident from the case of Mukhtar Mai where a Panchayat sanctioned gang rape of Mukhtar Mai as retribution for the alleged affair of her brother with a girl from another tribe[13]. As was noted by Rebecca H. Rittenhouse in the Human Rights Foundation report:

“The gang rape of Mai upon her arrival was the result of a form of retributive justice, sanctioned by a traditional, exclusively male, judicial council that not only allows for but orders the bartering and rape of women to settle disputes.”[14]

 Role of religion in fuelling violence against women

Islam as the state religion[15]is also often misused to justify gender biases in Pakistan.This is reflected historically in General Zia-ul-Haq’s islamisation efforts under the aegis of which the controversial Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance, 1979 was passed. The Ordinance criminalized all forms of sexual intercourse outside marriage[16]. Under this law many women were left to rot in prisons, with little chances to obtain bail, after rape allegations made by them failed and were turned into convictions of adultery[17].The law remained in force until its amendment by the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws) Amendment Act, 2006[18].

The Federal Shariat Court (FSC)was also created under Zia’s islamisation program with the power to review laws on the basis of Islam[19].  In 2010 the FSC declared several provisions of the 2006 Act as un-Islamic and unconstitutional and sought to reinstate provisions of the 1979 Hudood Ordinance[20]. This decision in itself is an example of how religion may be relied upon at an institutional level to discriminate against women and legalise violence against women[21]. Further, the possibility of personal judicial biases in interpretation of Islamic injunctions cannot be overruled[22].Often extremist and conservative interpretations of Quranic injunctions[23] are adopted to justify male dominance rather than progressive interpretations which substantiate human rights.

Part II: Discussion of crimes

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a very common form of violence silently suffered by many women in Pakistan. It is a form of physical, sexual or psychological abuse of power perpetrated mainly (but not only) by men against women in a relationship or after separation[24]. In Pakistan since the joint family system is common, in laws are also common perpetrators of domestic violence[25] in relation to dowry issues or family disputes.

The problem with this form of violence against women is that such cases are seldom reported, often treated as private household matters[26]. Men consider it their right to threaten or be physically violent to their wives as corrective behavior when women are seen as being disobedient. Ironically, in most cases of domestic violence women do not even realize that they have suffered a form of abuse at the hands of their partners and treat domestic violence as socially accepted behavior.

According to the PDHS overall, 39% of ever-married women aged 15-49 report having experienced physical and/or emotional violence from their spouse. 52% of Pakistani women who experienced violence never sought help or told anyone about the violence.[27] Further, only 10% women indicated that not doing their household work, disobedience or refusal to have sexual intercourse with their husbands did not justify physical violence[28].

In recognition of the problem of domestic abuse, the Provincial Assembly of Sindh passed The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2013 which prescribes penalties for several offences constituting domestic violence against women. The Act is a welcome piece of legislation but until women themselves recognize domestic violence as an abuse of their rights and come forward to seek legal help, there is little that will change with a piece of legislation.

 Acid attacks

Acid violence presents a unique set of problems in Pakistan and other South Asian countries because of its brutal and dire consequences for the victims. The Acid Survivors Foundation recorded 1,090 incidents of acid attacks in Pakistan between 2007 and 2014[29]. The 2012 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject), Saving Face sheds light on this issue of acid attacks and its effects on the lives of survivors[30].

This form of violence involves intentionally spraying, throwing or pouring acid onto the victims’ faces and bodies, often intending to permanently disfigure and cause extreme physical and mental suffering to victims[31]. The effects of such attacks include physical pain, blindness, loss of facial features, severe mental suffering and as a consequence of these effects marginalization of victims in the society[32]. Victims have to undergo various surgeries to restore their facial features. In most cases perpetrators of such attacks are closely known to the victims[33]. Such attacks are motivated usually not with the intent of killing the victims but causing them severe physical pain and emotional trauma[34] for reasons such as rejection of love, marriage or sex proposals or disputes concerning marriage and dowry[35].

In 2011 the National Assembly passed as the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 2011 inserting the offences of hurt caused by corrosive substance (section 336A) and punishment for hurt by corrosive substance (section 336 B) into the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (“Penal Code”). The legislation relies on deterrence to address the problem of acid violence which may not be sufficient. It is unlikely that perpetrators will take threat of prosecution or sentencing seriously because of ineffective legal enforcement mechanisms in Pakistan[36]. Further, the legislation fails to address easy availability of acid in the market[37] and does little to restrict sale and purchase of corrosive substances.

 Honour Killings (Karo Kari or Siyah Kari)

Honour crimes refer to crimes committed against women to preserve the perpetrator’s honour in the society. An author defines such crimes to have occurred “when a man takes the life of a woman and claims that he did it because she was guilty of immoral sexual conduct”[38]. This justification for the crime stems from patriarchal social norms prevalent in Pakistan, particularly in the tribal cultures, where familial respect, social prestige and notions of ‘izzat’ and ‘ghairat’ determine a man’s position in the society.The honour of the men or the family is based on the behavior and morality of the women[39].Therefore, any attempts by the women to transgress from this socially accepted and morally correct behavior by exercising their free will costs them a heavy price, often their lives. Moreover, the Pakistani society attaches high value to chastity, sexual purity and virginity of women and a slightest hint of extra marital sexual relations, or even romantic relationships outside marriage,is considered to bring disrepute and shame to the family[40]. In most cases women are killed after being declared ‘kari’[41].

The Aurat Foundation has estimated that more than 3,000 women have been killed for honour in Pakistan since 2008[42]. An honour killings law exists in Pakistan in the form of Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2004 which made certain amendments to the Penal Code of which the most noteworthy was the insertion of a definition of honour crimes with the addition of ““offence committed in the name or on the pretext of honour” means an offence committed in the name or on the pretext of karokari, siyahkari or similar other customs and practices”[43]. Despite the law it is seen that in most cases ‘honour’ is still accepted as a mitigating factor in sentencing, as well as pleas of sudden and grave provocation have succeeded undermining the whole purpose of the law itself[44]. Judicial biases in the interpretation and application of the law still prevail and there is still little awareness about the law even among lawyers, police officials and media personnel[45].

Part III: Recommendations and way forward

The Pakistani society appears to have become tolerant to the issue of violence against women. Recognition that violence against women can never be acceptable or justified needs to come from grass roots level, as well as by the community, government and state institutions.

The starting point for any reform agenda is the enactment of effective polices. To some extent the recent efforts of the government in enacting pro-women legislation may be appreciated. Other than laws discussed in the above sections, the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 which is based on the realization that sexual harassment effects women’s self-esteem, worth and mobility and discourages them from actively participating in the public sector[46].Dr. Fouzia Saeed, the leading proponent and activist for getting this law passed explained that the law serves as a ‘transformative law’ not a criminalizing one, resulting in an improvement in the lives of women[47].However, the Act is applicable only to the corporate sectors and leaves open the question of how women working outside the corporate environment such as domestic workers can seek protection from sexual harassment by their employers.

The Anti-Women Practices [Criminal Law Amendment] Act, 2011 criminalises certain customary practices such as forced marriages of girls in the form of exchange marriages (watta-satta) or compensation marriages (swara, badal-e-sulh), deprivation of women’s inheritance by forcefully marrying them or preventing them to marry by their free will and marriage with the Quran[48]. However, like most legislation in Pakistan, the Act is ambiguous and confusing, implementation of which remains weak[49]. There is little knowledge and understanding of the law amongst officers of the law or state representatives tasked with its implementation[50].

It may be submitted that in combating violence against women victory does not lie in the sheer number of laws that have been passed which supposedly ‘protect’ women. Rather in the effectiveness of the laws and their close scrutiny to ensure that loopholes in policy do not further male interests.Legislation needs to be transformative rather than reformative[51].In this regard the Sexual Harassment Act of 2010 could be used as an example which is a progressive piece of legislation with potential to work towards the betterment of women’s lives rather than paying lip service to protecting women. Further, laws that are ‘gender blind’ need to be abolished because such policies present the danger of reinforcing existing social biases into formal policy[52].It should also be ensured that policies are not influenced by extremist religious interpretations defined by fundamentalist religious leaders masking their political agendas behind faith-based identities[53].

Further, access to justice is impeded by procedural difficulties including lack of awareness of laws by police officials, lack of information at police stations and information desks and reluctance of police to contact crisis centers when approached by victims[54]. A successful reform agenda needs to include a plan to improve enforcement and remedy procedural difficulties by training police officials to respond appropriately to cases of violence against women, availability of resources at police stations and inspection visits to police stations. Further, awareness campaigns should be organized in relation to existing laws educating the public at large.

In Pakistan violence against women cannot be combated until patriarchal mindsets are changed which can be achieved by strengthening the social and economic position of women and boosting their self-morale. Women should be provided equal economic, social and political rights including education, food, water, property, employment and social entitlements[55].This can be achieved by gender responsive budgeting by the government and macroeconomic policies which support realization of women’s rights[56]. As a broader social reform agenda women should be compulsorily educated at least till the age of 16. Presently while many human rights organisations have been campaigning for women’s rights most published material goes unnoticed because the majority of women are illiterate and in rural areas where access to such material is limited[57]. Educating women will also allow them to participate in the economic sectors and secure their financial interests.Occupational segregation and gender pay gaps should be reduced[58]. A greater sense of independence would automatically make them less tolerant to abuse by their male relatives.Further, there is a dire need for the government to establish shelters where victims of abuse can seek protection and provide counselling services. These measures will make women more willing to escape as well as report violence and abuse.

As a concluding remark it may be stated that the problem of violence against women in Pakistan is a complex one, stemming from a broader canvas of intertwined social, cultural, economic and religious issues.Addressing violence against women is a herculean task, albeit not an impossible one.A comprehensive and organized strategy which places women’s rights on national priority is the need of the day. A move is required which goes beyond simply criminalizing violence against women on paper to one which transforms attitudes and mindsets to lead to a society where women can breathe, dream and live with their heads held high.




[1] Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Speech at a meeting of the Muslim University Union, Aligarh (10 March 1944)

[2]World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2014, Pakistan (2014)

available at <> (last visited May 17, 2015)

[3] United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, General Assembly Resolution 48/104, Art 1

[4]Aurat Foundation, Situation of Violence Against Women in Pakistan, Annual Report 2013 <available at> (last visited May 30, 2015)

[5] Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, State of Human Rights in 2014 (March, 2015) 214

[6] Ibid. vii

[7] National Institute of Population Studies, Pakistan and ICF International,Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-13 (2013)available at <> last accessed May 30, 2015


[9] Ibid. 199

[10] Center for Peace and Development Initiatives, Policy Brief, Elimination of Violence Against Women and Increase Access to Gender Justice (2011) (Supported by UNDP)

[11] Justice (R) MajidaRazvi, A Study of Formal and Parallel Legal Systems Prevalent in Pakistan, National Commission on the Status of Women available at <> last accessed May 30, 2015

[12]Von Werlhorf E., ‘Scarred for life: The impact of the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act of 2010 on addressing violence against women in Pakistan’ (2014) International Review of Law 3

[13]Rebecca H. Rittenhouse, Human Rights Foundation, Pakistan’s Failure to Protect Women from Violence: The Case of Mukhtar Mai (2012) available at <>

[14] Ibid. 12

[15] The Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, Art 1 & 2

[16]Martin Lau, ‘Twenty Five Years of Hudood Ordinances – A Review’ (2007) 64 Wash. & Lee. L. Rev 1291

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 1294

[20] U.S State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Protection for 2013, Pakistan available at <>

[21] Rittenhouse (n 13)

[22]Hooma Shah, ‘Brutality by Acid: Utilising Bangladesh as a Model to Fight Acid Violence in Pakistan’ (2009) 26 WIS. INT’L L.J 1172

[23] See Quranic verse 4:34, Surah An-Nisa which provides, “(Husbands) are the protectors and maintainers of their (wives) because Allah has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means”.

[24]KanwalQayyum, Domestic Violence Against Women: Prevalence and Men’s Perception in PGRN Districts of Pakistan, Rutgers WPF(2013) available at <>

[25] Ibid. 10

[26] Ibid. 39

[27]PDHS (n 7)

[28]Qayyum (n 24) 33

[29]HRCP (n 5) 218

[30] Saving Face (HBO, 2012), trailer available at <>

[31]Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School and the New York City Bar Association, Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia (2011)2

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. 15

[35] Ibid. 19

[36]Werlhorf E. (n 12)

[37]Avon (n 31) 12

[38]Maliha Zia Lari, A pilot study on: Honour Killings in Pakistan and Compliance of Law, Aurat Foundation (published under Legislative Watch Programmefor Women’s Empowerment) (2011) citing Rabia Ali in a report for ShirkatGah




[42]HRCP (n 5) 217

[43] Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2004, s. 2

[44]Lari (n 38)

[45] Ibid.

[46]Afiya S. Zia, A Policy Framework for Women’s Equal Rights, Issues Concerns and Recommendations for Gendered Policy, National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan (2010)

[47] Ibid. 28

[48] Sarah Zaman, Forced Marriages and Inheritance Deprivation, A Research Study Exploring Substantive, Structural Gaps in the Implementation of The Anti-Women Practices [Criminal Law Amendment] Act, 2011 in six select districts of Pakistan, Aurat Foundation (2014) available at <> last accessed May 30, 2015

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Zia (n 46)

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54]Zia (n 46)

[55]ShehzadiZamurrad Awan,‘Role of Civil Society in Empowering Pakistani Women’ (2012) A Research Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2

[56] UN Women, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016, Transforming Economies, Realising Rights (2015) available at last accessed May 30, 2015

[57] Ibid.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which she might be associated.

Shafaq Asmat

The writer holds a Masters in Law from School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and is a practicing in-house lawyer in Karachi.