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Monday, June 10, 2024

THE STATUS OF MINORITY WOMEN IN PAKISTAN

“Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.”

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg

INTRODUCTION
“An ethnic, religious or linguistic minority is a group of people who constitute less than half of the population in the entire territory of a State whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion, or language”– according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCRC)[1].

The discrimination faced by people in minority groups is a significant issue. Women, especially, are often marginalized in traditional patriarchal societies. Women from minority groups encounter discrimination on multiple levels, both for their gender and their minority status. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and their active involvement in public life and nation-building. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is committed to eradicating discrimination against women as enshrined in the country’s Constitution. Pakistan was among the first nations to endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and has subsequently ratified seven out of nine other international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[2], adopted by the UN in 1979 and ratified by Pakistan in 1996. However, in reality, the condition of women in Pakistan is such that in 2021 it ranked 167th in its Women Peace and Security Index by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. Over 1000 women of minority communities are abducted, forcefully converted, and forcefully married every year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. This article aims to examine the experiences of women and their families belonging to religious minorities such as Ahmadiyya, Christians, Hindus, Hazaras, and Shias in Pakistan.

 

SOCIAL, RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL MARGINALIZATION
Pakistan’s deeply patriarchal society enforces strict gender norms and roles, which are even more rigid for minority women. They often experience increased levels of discrimination and violence, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, and honor killings. The economic vulnerability of minority women is further worsened by poverty. Many live in impoverished conditions with limited access to clean water, sanitation, and healthcare. This economic marginalization traps them in a cycle of poverty and dependence. According to the World Economic Forum’s report on the Gender Gap, Pakistan was ranked 142 out of 146 countries.[3] Minority women encounter significant economic hurdles. They are frequently confined to low-paying, informal sector jobs offering minimal job security and legal safeguards.

Employment discrimination is widespread, and minority women often receive lower pay than their Muslim counterparts for performing the same work. Hindu women from various sub-communities are traditionally expected to fulfill specific roles. For instance, women from the Marwari community are expected to sell dried fruits in public and market areas along the roadsides. Engaging in this occupation has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, women work together in groups and have more freedom to move around the town, resulting in less restricted mobility. However, the downside is that women cannot pursue other occupations or receive proper education. If they attempt to change jobs, they are accused of disrupting domestic and married life within the community. Moreover, women from the Marwari community, as well as women from other Hindu sub-communities, are expected to adhere to specific occupational roles. In many Hindu communities, women are expected to work as maids in various sub-communities, while both men and women are employed as sweepers in government and private sectors. Another example is that Christian women from meagre socioeconomic backgrounds are expected to adopt specific occupational roles primarily only considered for sanitation work, whether at the domestic level or in any institution. Additionally, minority women, predominantly Christian and Hindu women, are often perceived as immodest individuals whose sense of fashion is indecent and who have questionable characters.

Furthermore, women belonging to the minority group are forced to convert to Islam and are forcefully married to Muslim men. Christian and Hindu girls are especially at risk of forced religious conversion, abduction, trafficking, early and forced marriage, domestic servitude, and sexual violence. According to the law, “A woman’s right to choose a spouse and freely enter into marriage is central to her life, dignity, and equality as a human being and must be protected and upheld by law” but on 13 March 2024, a 13-year-old Christian girl [4]was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to her abductor after her age was recorded as 18 on the marriage certificate. Regardless of children’s right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion by Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, changing the religion or belief must always be voluntary and free from coercion or undue inducement.

Moreover, Pakistan’s political system includes reserved seats for minorities and women in legislative bodies. However, the representation of minority women in politics remains minimal. Only around 5.5% of minority women are members of a political party, 0.4% hold office, and 1.5% are representatives. Among them, 18% are not part of the decision-making process, and only 4% take part in decision-making[5]. Those who hold political office often face significant obstacles, including discrimination, harassment, and threats. Cultural and societal norms restrict their participation, and they often lack the support and resources to engage effectively in political activities.

LEGAL AND INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK
The Constitution of Pakistan contains various provisions aimed at safeguarding the rights of minorities, including minority women. These constitutional protections are intended to ensure equality, non-discrimination, and security for all citizens, irrespective of religion or gender. Here are the key constitutional provisions relevant to the rights of minority women in Pakistan:

  • Article 20: Freedom of Religion – This article guarantees every citizen the right to profess, practice, and propagate their religion. It also provides for the right to establish, maintain, and manage religious institutions.
  • Article 25: Equality of Citizens- Article 25 ensures that all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law. It explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sex and religion. Sub-clause 2 of Article 25 states: “There shall be no discrimination based on sex alone. Sub-clause 3 allows the state to make special provisions for the protection of women and children.
  • Article 26: Non-Discrimination in Respect of Access to Public Places-This article guarantees that every citizen shall have access to places of public entertainment or resort without discrimination based on race, religion, caste, sex, residence, or place of birth.
  • Article 27 ensures that no citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the grounds of race, religion, caste, sex, residence, or place of birth.
  • Article 32: Representation in Local Government Institutions emphasizes the promotion of local government institutions and ensures special representation of peasants, workers, and women in these institutions.
  • Article 34: Full Participation of Women in National Life mandates that steps shall be taken to ensure the full participation of women in all spheres of national life.
  • Article 36: Protection of Minorities specifically directs the state to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the federal and provincial services.

Even though Pakistan’s constitution guarantees certain rights, it fails to protect the rights of minority women. These women are deprived of basic human rights, such as the freedom to practice the religion of their choice and other basic fundamental rights.

Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on April 12, 1996, 17 years after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. In 2005, the country submitted its combined initial, second, and third periodic reports, showing progress on gender equality, women’s access to political and public life, education, health, and employment. In 2018, Pakistan submitted its fifth periodic report, demonstrating policy reforms in compliance with treaty obligations. The CEDAW Committee’s concluding observations in March 2020 requested Pakistan to submit a follow-up report within two years, including requests to criminalize all forms of gender-based violence against women, adopt a national plan of action to combat all forms of GBV against women, ensure effective enforcement of anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling laws, and increase school enrollment among girls while reducing their dropout rate.

It is important to remember that despite constitutional protections, the real challenge lies in implementing these rights. Minority women in Pakistan often encounter systemic barriers and societal discrimination that prevent them from fully realizing their constitutional rights. To address these issues, continuous efforts are needed to strengthen the legal framework and ensure effective enforcement of laws protecting minority women.

CONCLUSION
The circumstances of minority women in Pakistan mirror broader issues of gender and religious bias in the country. Despite some positive advancements, significant barriers still exist. Overcoming these challenges necessitates a comprehensive approach involving legal reforms, economic empowerment, political engagement, and societal transformation. Through persistent advocacy for the rights and respect of minority women, Pakistan can move towards a more inclusive and just society. Significant changes are needed to empower women and girls who are abducted, forcibly converted, or coerced into marriage. We must also work towards transforming the communities where these incidents occur so that such atrocities become unthinkable. There is never a valid justification for the violence and mistreatment of women and girls, regardless of when and where it occurs. Pakistan is a powerful reminder that challenges to women’s rights are not limited to a specific region. It highlights the vulnerability of hard-earned progress in gender equality and women’s rights, underscoring the global significance of advocating for women’s rights and gender equality as a universal cause.

 

REFERENCES
About minorities and human rights. (n.d.). https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/sr-minority-issues/about-minorities-and-human-rights

Bokhari, S. (2020). Chapter 21 Protecting Religious Minority Women in Pakistan. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24374.27

Jivan, J. (n.d.). Life on the margins: A Study on the Minority Women in Pakistan. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/droi/dv/811_lifemargins_/811_lifemargins_en.pds

Gill, M., Aqeel, A., Dogra, B., Rabeeah Malik, Jessica Bakhshi, Sonia Patras, Jayaa Jaggi, Safina Javed, Anita Saleem, & Shamshad Malik. (2022). Stories of Resilience and Resolve: an intersectional study on the plight of Non-Muslim women and girls in Pakistan. https://thesouthasiacollective.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/ResearchPaper_MinorityWomen_Pakistan.pdf

UN Women. (2023). NATIONAL REPORT ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN PAKISTAN, 2023 – A SUMMARY. https://pakistan.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2023-07/summary_-nrsw-inl_final.pdf

[1] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights works to promote and protect human rights

[2] The CEDAW treaty is a tool that empowers women throughout the world to effect change in their daily lives. In countries that have joined the treaty, CEDAW has proven helpful in combating the effects of discrimination, such as violence, poverty, and a lack of legal safeguards, as well as the denial of inheritance, property rights, and credit.

[3]Global Gender Gap Report 2023 Benchmarking gender gaps, 2023 – Global Gender Gap Report 2023 | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

[4] Pakistan: UN experts alarmed by lack of protection for minority girls from forced religious conversions and forced marriage.(n.d.).https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2024/04/pakistan-un-experts-alarmed-lack-protection-minority-girls-forced-religious

[5] Life on the margins: A Study on the Minority Women in Pakistan(2012) https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/droi/dv/811_lifemargins_/811_lifemargins_en.pds

 

AUTHOR
G K Rhiya Jency,
Loyola College, Chennai
Currently Intern at Red Lantern Analytica

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