Empowerment · Misc

Law vs Culture

Growing up in an African and South Asian family, having a somewhat mixed heritage, I’ve always paid close attention to the different situations occurring in those particular regions. Having been born and brought up in Great Britain, a western and somewhat civilised society, I am fortunate enough to never have experienced some of the world’s injustices that occur everyday for many around the world. Injustices which have caused death, war, and destruction. One of the biggest forms of injustice occurring around the world is this sense of discrimination against particular groups; whether it be gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality related. Discrimination against women and children, however, has been an occurrence for MANY years and is shockingly still seen today in the developing world alike. What some may consider a private matter or a socio-cultural tradition is often a deprivation of an individual’s freedom and a direct violation of international human rights.

I grew up listening to some great stories of my mother’s country of birth, Pakistan. I often visited as a child too enjoying the family, culture, food, fashion and historical sites. I enjoyed playing with the children I met in the public park only to overhear bystanders make fun of me for playing with what they called “Churay”. At first I never understood what this meant, but quickly picked up that it was the term given to those seen to be “unclean”. You can imagine my reaction – unclean? What they didn’t get around to washing their hands today? No. It was the term given to those who often were paid to clean toilets and do all the dirty work around the house. I was horrified. Absolutely disheartened that others didn’t treat those kids the same as they treated me because of the jobs they did! It went against EVERYTHING I believed in and what I was taught by my parents: That we are ALL equal; NO-ONE is above or beneath you; We all bleed red; We are all one under God.

This whole thing of isolating a group of people because of the type of job they do, and calling them names like ‘churay’ or ‘chura’ is outdated, retrogressive, and one of the evils of the feudalistic society which plagues not only certain parts of Pakistan, but many developing countries for that matter. Because of this, women and young girls are usually the ones who are on the receiving end of abuse, exploitation and neglect.

Take Pakistan’s “Heera Mandi” (“Diamond Market”) as an other example; a red-light district associated with traditional dancing and singing, home and workplace to a large proportion of female sex workers including their children and other run-away children alike. Women are often led down the road to prostitution as unemployment and inflation cause a rise in poverty. However, sadly it seems that often family members reluctantly have to resort to forcing loved ones into prostitution to pay off personal debts.

Children of commercial sex workers are being ostracised by society by DEFAULT even before they are ever given the chance to develop their personality and status in the world.  Where is the justice and equality that we are all given as a birth right here? Sadly, no where to be seen. Society begins to differentiate between children of sex workers and so called mainstream “normal” children.  Unfortunately this leads to children being seen as illegitimate and are further stigmatised and therefore separated from mainstream schools and establishments. They are treated like minorities within their own country and are therefore often subject to terrible violence and denial of their rights; most importantly in my books: THE RIGHT TO AN EDUCATION.

The hope of an education, which is a birth given right in many developed countries, is almost dream-like in Pakistan for the children of Heera Mandi. It seems that the early years in which children go through school and get an education, is replaced in Pakistan’s Heera Mandi by constant discrimination, violence, rape, and torture and no education and awareness. The present state of these children is unacceptable and if nothing is done about it, then the children of sex workers in Pakistan will forever be victimised by their own country.

Saying this, I am so glad to see that Pakistan as a country has been an early international leader in the protection of the rights of children around the world. They ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and began their commitment to defending rights of children. It was only until fairly recently when Pakistan became the 144th country to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. When it comes to Women, Pakistan, particularly Punjab, has made it very clear that:

Women’s rights mean privileges and freedoms equal to those of men. Women rights refer to the fundamental rights in the political, economic, civil, social and cultural spheres.

The Constitution of Pakistan even provides equal rights to women, and the chapter on Principles of Policy underlines the principle of equal rights and equal treatment to ALL citizens/ persons, without any distinction including on the basis of SEX.

Despite all of this, women and children in certain parts of Pakistan, are still being exploited, denied rights, and excluded from mainstream society. Why though? Why is this still happening when even the law of the land protects women against such practices? It seems that the cultural norms that lie at the heart of Pakistani society have been exploited to oppress and discriminate against women. The so-called protectors of cultural practices are, in reality, the oppressors. This, then seems to generate these social biases which are most often to the detriment of women.

Men in Pakistan have retained, through the colonial legacy, a public role and relegated women to domestic chores. Even within the household, men are the managers. Thus women owe allegiance to men who not only control public and political affairs but also the household. The public/private dichotomy has undeniably resulted in the subjugation of women. They are the victims of social and cultural malpractices in the name of tradition and customs. – Criterion Quarterly

Pakistan has also put special measures in place to protect women against any form of discrimination by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Article 5 of CEDAW aims to modify social and cultural practices with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and discriminatory customary practices. It’s exactly that – CULTURAL practices which of course lie at the heart of Pakistani society. Many of these practices (now only practiced in remote areas of Pakistan) deprive women of their basic rights of life, freedom and dignity. They are implemented in the name of religion half the time, and the patriarchal system prevalent in the country. Honour killings and acid attacks of women even in my own country of Great Britain have become alarmingly frequent and need to be dealt with.

One woman is raped every six hours and one woman is a victim of domestic violence every two hours.- Human Rights Commission Pakistan

Despite the provisions of the various articles in the Constitution of Pakistan that uphold human dignity and equality, we see women shy away from reporting any abuse or crime they have been victim to because of the social bias authorities have towards men. Women suffer in spite of recognised ratified laws. In order to bring about a change in the way women and children are treated, we must transform the mindset of the people. Only then will we restore RESPECT for women; a direction towards respecting the female child of the family. Giving equal treatment to male and female children will inspire women with the dignity that has been denied to them. The three things that will play a big role in all of this is the home, the family and the school.  If these values and this change of mindset are introduced in the education system, a cultural revolution that pushes away all the negative tradition-based biases against women can be achieved. A change in attitude has to come from within so that collectively there is a willingness to prevent any form of discrimination and inequality against women or children.

In celebration of International Women’s Day (8th March), I write this blog as an Advocate of women’s rights and victims of domestic abuse, and more so an issue that deeply affects me. In no way am I criticising Pakistan as a country. Rather, I am highlighting that even though there are laws in place that may guarantee human rights and protection, all are meaningless unless they are faithfully implemented.

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