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Can We End Gender Inequality?

By Rahil Yasin

18 June, 2008

LAHORE: Gender equality – promoting equal opportunities for women and men in decision-making; supporting women so that they can fully enjoy their rights; and reducing the gap between women and men's access to resources and benefit from development – is still out of reach for most women throughout the world. To stop violence against women has become a challenging task for human rights organisations, civil society groups, women associations, NGOs and even for governments. It has been observed that the number of cases of violence against women is increasing with each passing day.

In some countries legal disparities are blatant, in others they are much more subtle. What is clear is that many states are failing to live up to their promises to review their laws and root out institutional discrimination, and millions of women continue to suffer grave injustices. Like every year, calls to end forced marriage, domestic abuse and job discrimination marked the International Women's Day as demonstrators took to the streets worldwide. The day continues to be celebrated worldwide since 1908, but there are still no policies to ease home-based women workers, efforts to tackle sexual harassment and no defined line for rape cases to give justice to women in Pakistan.

According to a UNESCO report, among two-thirds of the world's illiterate population, 900 million are women. The UN Statistics Division report found that 71.5 percent was the estimated level of illiteracy among women from 2000 until 2005 in Pakistan. A World Bank report stated only 22 percent girls in Pakistan have completed their primary level of schooling in the rural areas of Pakistan as compared to 47 percent boys. It is also estimated that only 57 percent of females in Pakistan could read and write.

A Planning Commission report says that although half of Pakistan's population consists of females, their participation in the development process is far from equal. Socio-cultural traditions reinforced by lack of access to opportunities and resources relegate the majority of women to traditional roles. In some direct market-oriented economic activities like agriculture, their contribution is substantial, but it remains largely undervalued and unappreciated. Low female participation in formal economic activities in developing countries can be traced to gender disparities in education that has continued since past generations, the Planning Commission's report says.

According to a report compiled by the Ministry of Women Development, the health status of women in Pakistan "is poor as compared with other countries in Asia. Some 30,000 women die each year due to complications of pregnancy, and 10 times more women develop life-long pregnancy-related disability. Many girls die prematurely because of common infections and malnutrition, which could have been easily prevented and treated."

This failure of funding undermines not only our endeavours for gender equality and women's empowerment, it also holds back our efforts to reach all the Millennium Development Goals.

A report released by the Citizen's Commission for Human Development for 2007 revealed that 901 murder cases of women were reported in Punjab alone, whereas 688 women were kidnapped the same year. It said 317 cases of physical torture/harassment of women had been registered, while 100 women were set ablaze on petty issues in the province last year. According to independent reports by various human rights organisations during the last five years, 9,679 women had been murdered in Punjab, out of which 1,638 were murdered by their close relatives. Forty-six women were killed in the first two months of this year, says a report released on the eve of the International Women's Day. Seventeen of them fell prey to karo kari, says the report about violence against women prepared by Aurat Foundation. The report says that 13 women were raped while three others were gang raped. Eleven women committed suicide while 17 others who attempted were saved. Domestic violence was committed against 20 women, two women were sold and 17 others suffered custodial violence.

Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of objectives of equality, development and peace. It violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedom. The long-standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedom in the case of violence against women is a matter of concern to all states.

The term 'violence against women' means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. Other acts of violence against women include violation of human rights of women in case of armed conflict, in particular murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy.

Acts or threats of violence, whether occurring within home or in the community, or perpetrated or condoned by the state, instill fear and insecurity in women's lives and are obstacles to the achievement of equality and for development and peace. The fear of violence, including harassment, is a permanent constraint on the mobility of women and limits their access to resources and basic activities. High social, health and economic costs to the individual and society are associated with violence against women.

Violence against women throughout the life-cycle derives essentially from cultural patterns, in particular the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices and all acts of extremism linked to race, sex, language or religion that perpetuate the lower status accorded to women in the family, the workplace and society.

Violence against women is exacerbated by social pressures, notably the shame of denouncing certain acts that have been perpetrated against women; women's lack of access to legal information, aid or protection; lack of laws that effectively prohibit violence against women; failure to reform existing laws; inadequate efforts on the part of public authorities to promote awareness and enforce existing laws; and the absence of educational and other means to address causes and consequences of violence.

Developing a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to the challenging task of promoting families, communities and states that are free of violence against women is necessary and achievable. Equality, partnership between women and men and respect for human dignity must permeate all stages of the socialisation process. The educational system should promote self-respect, mutual respect, and cooperation between women and men.

Lack of or inadequate documentation and research on domestic violence, sexual harassment and violence against women in private and in public, including the workplace, impede efforts to design specific intervention strategies. In addressing violence against women, governments and other actors should promote an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes so that before decisions are taken an analysis may be made of their effects on women and men, respectively.

The UN recommended some actions to governments to eliminate the discrimination against women in its Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Pakistan must follow the UN declaration as well. Unless and until there is a proper campaign by both political and civil society to alter the anti-women sentiment in our society, the atrocities against women would continue, to the detriment of society as a whole.

Rahil Yasin is a working journalist, writer and researcher based in Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at


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