Human rights and Pakistan
By: Malik Muhammad Ashraf
Notwithstanding the flak directed at the PPP by its detractors, the party enjoys the unique distinction of pioneering efforts for empowerment and emancipation of women in Pakistan
The Universal Human Rights Day was celebrated throughout the world including Pakistan on December 10, 2012 to reaffirm the commitment to uphold and respect the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on the same day in 1948.
The day came at a time when Pakistan has been elected as a member of the Human Rights Council of the UN with the support of 171 countries out of 191 members, which in a way is an endorsement of the human rights situation in the country. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf addressing a function held in Islamabad to commemorate the day, while pointing out to this recognition at the global level, recounted the measures that the government has taken to improve the human rights situation in Pakistan, especially in regards to the rights of minorities, women’s emancipation and gender equality, which are beyond any reproach.
The touchstone of morality of a nation or a society is the way it treats its womenfolk. Women are a very important segment of any society and without their unhindered participation in all spheres of national life; no nation can march towards its cherished goals of economic, political and cultural progress and earn a respectable place in the comity of nations. That perhaps adequately explains the difference between the developed and non-developed nations.
It is a shame that Pakistani women have long been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence on the basis of a misconstrued understanding of religion and cultural traditions. They have been treated as inferior human beings and deliberately kept out of the national mainstream by successive regimes whose prime concern has been to protect their vested interests through perpetuation of the archaic feudal system of governance that discouraged participation of women in the national effort. Society also remained criminally oblivious to this injustice perpetrated on women and the blatant abuse of human rights. The media, though it sporadically did highlight the plight of women in Pakistan, but its major engagement and concern has remained the prevalent political landscape.
A close, unbiased and objective appraisal of the political history of Pakistan reveals that notwithstanding the incessant flak directed at the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) by its detractors within the establishment, the rightist elements and their sympathisers in the media and the controversies surrounding its brand of politics, the party enjoys the unique distinction of pioneering efforts for empowerment and emancipation of women in the country. To begin with, the 1973 constitution given by the party ensured equal rights for women and minorities in conformity with the vision of the Quaid-e-Azam. During the second PPP government, the Ministry of Human Rights was established to watch, monitor and investigate human rights abuses, particularly against women. Pakistan ratified the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
The present PPP government has also shown unswerving commitment and dedication to the cause of women by promulgating the Protection of Women from Harassment at the Workplace Act. In a society that continues to be haunted by the demon of conservatism, this legislation marks the beginning of a pragmatic and forward-looking approach in conformity with the emerging social realities. With the growing number of women joining or aspiring to join the workforce in different fields of national life, the problem of harassment of women at the workplace had also assumed alarming proportions. According to a survey conducted by an NGO, 80 percent working women in Pakistan at one time or another have been through this ordeal.
The legislation on harassment and the amendment in Section 509 A of the Pakistan Penal Code has laid a solid foundation for ensuring a harassment-free working environment for women. It is a significant initiative on many counts that will encourage the women already working who have been enduring the humiliation of sexual harassment in the absence of an appropriate legal support to spurn and resist unwanted approaches by their workmates or bosses and do their jobs with an unruffled confidence. It will remove the biggest hurdle in the way of women who were reluctant to join the workforce due to this phenomenon besides helping in changing the mindset of those who indulge in the detestable pursuit of sexual harassment of women. Consequently, the initiative will act as a catalyst to nudge the process of social and economic change.
The PPP government can also rightly boast of legislating on another very important and sensitive issue of domestic violence. For years, domestic violence has been a source of public concern but no previous government ever dared to delve into it. The courage and commitment shown by the government to tackle this nagging problem through the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is beyond any reproach. Similarly, other legislative initiatives of the present government including the Women In Distress and Detention Amendment Act and Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act, the National Commission on the Status of Women Act 2012, and the National Commission for Human Rights Act 2012 represent landmark achievements in regards to protecting women against inhuman and archaic social practices and ensuring gender equality. Granting of complete administrative and financial autonomy to the National Commission on Status of Women and fixation of 10 percent quota for women in government jobs in addition to the initiation of the process to review all discriminatory laws against women will surely contribute to the emancipation of women in Pakistan.
The government has also increased minority seats in the Senate besides fixing a quota in jobs. The promulgation of personal laws of the minorities is also under active consideration. International obligations regarding human rights have been fulfilled. Government has also ratified four conventions and one optional protocol, including the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention against Torture and other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and an optional protocol to the UNHCR on Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. All the foregoing steps and legislative measures have taken Pakistan several notches up on the moral plank in addition to all other accompanying benefits. Further, these steps have unleashed an irreversible social revolution in the country. They will not only accelerate the process of development but will go a long way in improving the image of the country in the comity of nations, as a progressive Islamic country.