To push Pakistan toward more cooperation in fighting terrorists, the United States has suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid. Will it also have the spine to cut aid over Pakistan’s abhorrent treatment of women?
The fact remains that Pakistan has long been a country that collectively wages a war of terror against 49 percent of its own population: against its wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Yet outsiders scarcely hear a whimper about this story.
Rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, honor crimes, abuse, and discrimination against women remain serious problems in Pakistan. TrustLaw, an organization that provides legal aid and information on women’s rights, ranks Pakistan as the third most dangerous country for women (behind Congo and Afghanistan). If successive US administrations and Congress don’t use more muscle against these criminal human rights violations, it is because they don’t want to.
Sexual assault is so common it’s not reported
Recently an elderly Pakistani woman was forcibly paraded naked through a Punjab village. The reason? The woman’s grown son was having an adulterous relationship.
According to the latest Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Report, 3,000 women were raped in 2010 and 791 murdered in so-called “honor killings.”
Azra Rashid, a Canadian-Pakistani women’s rights activist, says those numbers are grossly underestimated. “Sexual assault is so common women don’t even report it. Girls grow up not even knowing it’s sexual assault when they are touched inappropriately.” Ms. Rashid says as a young girl she was often groped and fondled going to the market.
Why don’t Pakistani women report these crimes to police? Not long ago, one young Pakistani woman and her sister went to a police station to report a missing brother. The two girls were detained and repeatedly gang-raped by the police.
Rashid says, “At best Pakistani police don’t believe rape victims, the politicians don’t care, and Pakistanis have come to accept this as part of their daily reality.”
A leading Pakistani politician was recently quoted as saying if a woman is raped, and she can’t bring four independent witnesses who saw the act, she should not bother to report it. This, despite the fact that the law no longer requires four witnesses to prove rape. Pakistan has improved its laws protecting women in recent years, but lack of enforcement and entrenched attitudes block progress.
It's not just rape
It’s not just rape. The ex-husband of a female Pakistani friend threatened to throw acid in her face if she went out with another man. It is not uncommon to see Pakistani women with faces scarred by such acid attacks. Ireland’s Refugee Document Center reporting on crimes against Pakistani women said that “in extreme cases punishments can include women being buried alive.” Pakistani men are rarely convicted of crimes against women.
Rural land or cattle disputes are often settled by having one party give the other an underage daughter. Rural Pakistan is the 14th century. The countryside is quite familiar with wealthy landlords locking up nubile young serf girls in pens and using them for their pleasure. Domestic house maids in cities are so vulnerable their condition is said to be worse than that of slaves. “The entire patriarchal society is run by men, and warped,” says Rashid.
In a high-profile case, Mukhtara Mai was gang raped on orders of her village council in 2002 because her brother had allegedly committed adultery with the daughter of a feudal lord in an opposing clan. Yet all but one of the 14 accused men were acquitted this year.
In a 2005 Washington Post interview, then-President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged rape as a problem in Pakistan, but added, “A lot of people say that if you want to go abroad and get a visa or Canadian citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”
US should not fear playing hardball
The US government largely winks at all this, giving Pakistan upward of $3 billion a year in economic and military assistance. But why should any American woman’s (or man’s) taxes be used to prop up a Pakistani government that views crimes against its own female population as acceptable?
Some apologists cluck and say “Don’t dump Pakistan. It has 100 nuclear weapons.” Yet in the cold war the United States courageously championed the cause of Soviet Jews when the Russians had thousands of nuclear weapons.
Fear of an erratic Pakistan and our own shameless political expediency should not be the driving force behind US policy toward Islamabad. Those are the values of moral and political bankruptcy. Great democratic nations do not abandon the weak, the abused, and the raped for political convenience.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.