Still A 21st Century Problem: On Female Infanticide and Femicide in Pakistan
by Amal Surmawala
Shockwaves rippled throughout Pakistan as news broke of a man shooting and killing his 7-day-old daughter in Mianwali district, Punjab, in early March. Infuriated by the birth of his newborn daughter Jannat (meaning ‘heaven’ in Urdu), Shahzaib Khan shot the infant four times and fled shortly afterwards. A report was filed by the infant’s maternal uncle, who claimed that Khan was disturbed and enraged by the birth of a first-born daughter instead of a son.
The incident has since sparked immense outrage online. Several Twitter users employed #mianwali to express their shock and disgust at the incident, posting loving pictures with their own daughters, quotes from the Qu’ran denouncing the idea of daughters as a burden, and reiterating the need to safeguard women’s rights in the country.
“I’m disgusted to the core,” wrote Twitter user Misbah Munir. “I feel terribly for the mother. Look at the beautiful daughter she had. Women lead the world, it’s 2022 FFS.”
The Mianwali scandal, however, is hardly an isolated incident. The Edhi Foundation discovered as many as 375 infant bodies (most of which were girls) in different parts of Karachi in 2019. The idea that boys are more valuable than girls is far from new, with female children sometimes being seen as an economic burden to their families.
On 8 July 2022, the Ministry of Human Rights in Pakistan introduced the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act in the National Assembly. Despite efforts at establishing legal protections, however, Pakistan was still ranked 153rd in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index 2021. The act is a move towards ensuring the establishment of a legal framework for protection of women in Pakistan, but such measures are insufficient if they are improperly implemented. A series of barriers against bringing the law to life render such frameworks ineffective: weak judicial institutions, lack of widespread knowledge about one’s own rights as a citizen, lack of expertise on the part of police (and reports of women being abused in police custody), and the fact that power and influence is a primary factor for determining access to existing institutions anyway.
While passing bills to ensure the protection of women is an important step towards preventing gender-based violence, it is not enough. The last few years have seen a disturbing number of reports of violent acts against women, including the high-profile murder of Noor Mukadam (who was brutally tortured and beheaded in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, just last summer). All these reports indicate that the need to end femicide in Pakistan is far from being met. Concrete steps towards implementing laws that supposedly enact protection are vital. Communication channels to report incidents must be secured. Swift action against perpetrators must be taken. Sanctions for violence against women must be seen through till the end. In the long-term, a more conscious effort must be made to highlight the importance of women (and their rights) in the public sphere through the education system. It is high time that we move beyond the notion that women are a social and economic burden, and allow them to function as fully-fledged members of society with the safety they deserve.
As a Pakistani woman myself, reading these stories sickens and saddens me. They prick at me every time I get on a bus, or take a cab ride, or think about going over to a friend’s house alone. So I ask that when the stories flood in, you spend more than a minute of customary silence considering them. I ask that you not dismiss the issue as futile, as fixed, as a reality unchangeable. I ask that when women take to the streets and march, asking for the right to live, you listen. And get to work — consider following accounts like @auratmarch and learn more about women’s rights in Pakistan and how to be involved, and support organisations and initiatives like Women Empowerment Organisation (WEO) and @sahaelie. Find the spaces that work for you and bring your talents to the table.