Violence Against Pakistani Women Spurs Bhutto to Act

ZAINAB NOOR was physically abused so badly by her husband last January that the Pakistani government arranged for her travel to Britain for advanced medical treatment.

Her case - which has received wide media coverage - has helped to highlight the abuse of many women in this country of 130 million. And coverage of her return to Pakistan from Britain in early June was particularly noteworthy since it coincided with the opening of the first all-female police station here.

Staffed by some 20 policewomen, the station is the first of its kind in the capital, Islamabad, and the fourth to open in Pakistan. The government plans to open all-female stations in every district. Such stations are being widely proclaimed as the government's most vigorous attempt to protect women.

In the absence of clear statistics on crimes against women, the magnitude of the problem here is difficult to assess. But the government is keen to address the issue and appear ``friendly'' toward women, largely because its head, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is a woman.

In addition to creating the new all-female police stations, officials are busy preparing drafts for new laws and other policies to improve the status of women. ``We want to be governed according to the Constitution, live according to the law, and protect our men and women with equal vigor,'' claimed Ms. Bhutto during the June 15 inauguration of the police station. ``Every woman has the right to seek justice.''

For the first time, the government recently appointed two women judges to two separate provincial high courts. Plans also have been prepared to appoint special tribunals in each of the four provinces to report cases of heinous crimes against women and initiate legal action.

``This government's efforts have been far better than the previous ones in promoting women's issues,'' acknowledges Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan's leading women activists and a human rights lawyer, who has campaigned for well over a decade to repeal laws that are offensive to women.

But Ms. Jehangir says that Bhutto's party - the Pakistan People's Party - does not have the strength in parliament to change such laws. The Pakistani Constitution requires the consent of at least two-thirds of parliament's lower and upper house members to introduce major amendments. Bhutto has the support of just over half of the members in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. The upper house, the Senate, is controlled by the opposition.

Jehangir and her fellow activists are concerned about laws such as the citizenship act, which states that any Pakistani woman married to a foreign citizen cannot sponsor her husband or children to become Pakistani citizens. She has also campaigned against the sharia, or Islamic law, under which single women can be prosecuted for bearing illegitimate children. Few provisions exist to similarly prosecute fathers of these children.

According to Jehangir, a major source of the problem is inadequate political representation of women in parliament: Only five women sit among 304 members in the upper and lower houses. When asked about the creation of the all-women police stations, she says they ``make a symbolic difference, but in the long term, a lot more needs to be done.'' For example, Bhutto should sponsor as many women candidates as possible in next month's municipal elections, she adds.

But critics say privately that in Pakistan's male-dominated society, women are not likely to play a stronger role in politics in the short term. Yet they give Bhutto credit for trying to introduce changes in the face of difficult constraints.

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