02/11/2005, 00.00
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Human rights in Pakistan: violence and misery for children and women

by Qaiser Felix

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – In its 'State of Human Rights Report' for 2004, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that the situation of human rights in the country is abysmal.

The Report's six chapters trace an upward trend in violence against religious minorities as well as women, noting the lack of appropriate laws to protect such groups.

The data shows that overall human rights violations rose in 2004 compared to previous years; especially troubling were crimes against women and children.

Not only is economic hardship the main threat to the wellbeing of children but so are physical and sexual abuse.

Given the absence of any government strategy to address the problem, the situation is deteriorating. Many children who suffer from malnutrition are also denied an adequate education and have little or no access to drinking water and medical care. In Karachi alone 10,000 children survive in the streets.

According to the Report, education standards are constantly dropping and schools are increasingly inaccessible to the poorest classes of society.

This explains why Pakistan is at the bottom of the world ranking in terms of education. Some experts noted that about 5.8 million children did not attend any school or educational programme.

The health situation is also critical with polio still a problem, a situation complicated by the fact that much of the population is still unable to adequately feed itself: more than one third lives below the poverty line.

With poverty and unemployment at high levels more than a thousand Pakistanis committed suicide with another 4.5 million people addicted to illicit drugs.

Of all the groups, women are especially vulnerable. The HRCP Report cites official government statistics according to which about 1,000 women were murdered last year in honour killings, another 10,000 were raped, and thousands more were victims of domestic violence, including 42 women who were attacked with acid and 19 flogged.

Even when the government has laws that are supposed to stop discrimination against women, the Commission points out, they have had little impact because the Hudood (which outlaws extra-marital sex and rape outside of a valid marriage), Qisas (which calls for equal punishment for the crime committed) and Diyat (compensation payable to a victim's legal heirs) Ordinances have not been repealed or amended.

Victims at home, women find no respite from violence in the workplace. Existing legislation is dourly inadequate; it fails to protect them from sexual harassment and abuse as well as discriminatory labour practices. Some surveys have indicated that 78 per cent of women workers have suffered harassment of one kind or another.

In presenting the report to the press, the HRCP former chairman Afrasyab Khattak accused the political establishment of doing nothing to defend the rights of women and children.

"Children as young as three years have been convicted under the Frontier Crimes Regulations [Act] and are serving their sentences in Haripur," he said.

As for the plight of Pakistanis languishing in Afghan jails, Mr Khattak said that "the Afghan government wants to hand them over to Pakistan so that their cases can be heard and their fates decided. However, Pakistan has refused to accept them."

The number of Pakistanis in Afghan jails is not known but some unofficial sources speak of up to 400 waiting for trial in Pakistan's northern neighbour.

Given the present situation, the HRCP is worried about the future. HRCP Director I A Rehman said that "2004 has seen some of the worst incidents of sectarian violence". Even more alarming is "the degree of freedom with which the state used its guns on its own people" to deal with social problems.

For Mr Rehman, opting for a military solution to problem-solving is a matter of grave concern. "The lack of respect for the law and for justice means that anybody charged with terrorism has no access to legal representation and can be secretly detained" for long periods of time.

For the HRCP director, the report paints a gloomy picture of Pakistan's legal and judicial systems, which is always defending the interests of the state rather than those of the democratic process".

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