Unleashing the Power of Pakistan's Women and Girls

The “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” is an annual global campaign that runs from the 25th of November to the 10th of December. This campaign calls for action to end violence against women and girls, everywhere and in all forms. 

In this article, Jo Moir, the Development Director at the British High Commission in Islamabad, and the Country Representatives of two United Nations agencies, Abdullah A. Fadil from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Dr. Luay Shabaneh from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Pakistan outline their collective determination to address the deeply concerning issues of gender-based violence in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, gender-based violence (GBV) and child marriage strike at the heart of human rights and gender equality. These issues demand our unyielding commitment. According to the 2017-18 Demographic and Health Survey, 34.7 per cent of women aged 15-49 have endured physical violence since the age of 15. These statistics are not mere numbers; they are real lives shattered.

Most often, violence takes place within family settings. Young married girls are more likely to experience domestic violence and face abuse or use of force to behave in a certain way. While the age of marriage is gradually increasing in Pakistan, 18 per cent of girls are married off before they turn 18.

There is a compelling case to end this practice in all forms, not least because everyone has the right to respect, self-esteem, and dignity, regardless of gender or other identities. All Pakistani women and girls deserve equal opportunities and rights to realize their full potential and live a life without fear of disrespect, harassment or violence.

Ending gender-based violence brings a lot of economic gains to the state and families.  Recent research on the costs of this problem in the European Union and in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt revealed that treatment of victims of gender-based violence cost government and families billions of dollars.

While, there are enormous long-term psychological effects upon the survivors of violence, there are also huge social and economic costs to communities, including increased pressure on the healthcare system, loss of educational and employment opportunities, and loss of productivity – for example, according to a 2019 study funded by the UK Government, violence against women and girls is responsible for a national loss in productivity equivalent to 80 million days annually in Pakistan. Additionally, fear of harassment and violence is one of the major reasons why girls drop out of school after primary education, or why women do not access health services when they need them most.

Clearly, urgent investments are needed to fulfill the promise of a life free from violence for women and girls. Empowering women to enter the workforce, participate in decision-making processes, and contribute to the economy is not just a matter of equality, it is a smart, economic strategy: with a youthful female population, Pakistan’s demography presents a huge opportunity to build a productive and healthy workforce. Eradicating gender-based violence and child marriage is the foundation upon which we can build a future in which girls can attend schools, attend vocational trainings and take up jobs without fear of violence. Extensive research and examples from Bangladesh and other countries in the region and beyond underscore the fact that gender equality and increased opportunities for women result in a greater likelihood of them becoming the driving force behind economic progress, innovation, and prosperity.

However, success in eradicating gender-based violence and child marriage demands more than just policies – it requires unwavering political will and collective action. While it is inspiring to witness Pakistan's strides in the criminal justice system and establishment of gender-based violence response centers, there is still a lot more to be done.

However, success in eradicating GBV and child marriage requires unwavering political will and collective action. While it is inspiring to witness Pakistan's strides in the criminal justice system and establishment of GBV response centers, there is still a lot more to be done.

Firstly, Pakistan needs to make progress on the stalled pieces of legislation such as the Federal Domestic Violence Bill and provincial Child Marriage Bills to incentivize better social behaviors and conditions for holding the perpetrators to account.

Secondly, the government of Pakistan, civil society and international partners unite in their resolve to focus on prevention of GBV and child marriages. This will require a sustained effort to work with communities, religious leaders, men and boys and women and girls to shift social norms and behaviors backed by improved data and evidence.

Thirdly, Pakistan needs to improve the ecosystem in which GBV thrives. Tackling population growth due to its linkages with the desire to have more children, particularly sons, obstetrical violence, unintended pregnancies, and child marriages.

Fourthly, there are several response mechanisms in need of further reform. The integration of different Helplines into one dedicated easy to remember number is vital for improving help-seeking behaviors.

Finally, tackling GBV requires strong multi-sectoral coordination. The relevant departments need to coordinate and find solutions for prevention, protection and response together for effective case management.

The journey towards ending GBV and child marriage requires collective action. The benefits of reducing both will ensure a more prosperous future for Pakistan.

It is a fight worth waging, and it is time we stand together to win it.

Joint Op-Ed by:

Jo Moir, the Development Director at the British High Commission in Islamabad Country, Abdullah A. Fadil from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

Dr. Luay Shabaneh from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Pakistan 

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