Pakistani Campaign to End Violence Against Women Strengthens the Workers’ Movement

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Pakistan is another war zone for women. The country is ruled by Islamic military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. For so many women, it’s literally a death trap. From November 25 to December 10 last year, the Working Women Organisation of Pakistan (WWO) led the nationwide Campaign Against Gender Violence.

Formed in 1987 out of struggles against the country’s 1977-1989 Martial Law, WWO works toward building “a powerful broad-based workers’ movement that can empower workers, particularly women, and eliminate the existing exploitative system.” The objective of the 16-day campaign was to intensify pressure in the factories and streets for laws which ban brutal practices against women.

Slaves of slaves. Between 70 and 90% of women live with domestic violence, ranging from mental cruelty to murder. Marital rape is commonplace, but not a crime. Abuse in the home, in whatever form, is never investigated or prosecuted. What goes on inside the family — the man’s domain — is considered a private matter.  

Violence outside the family is also widespread. In 1997, at least eight women — more than half of them minors — were raped every 24 hours. Those who file charges face the likelihood of being prosecuted for extramarital sex — a serious offence, worthy of an “honour killing.”

WWO reports that in the first six months of 2000, “182 women were burned, 168 women were killed in the name of honour, 94 women were raped…407 more women were killed and 31 women kidnapped…There are hundreds of other cases, which are not reported in any newspapers or to police stations…Mental or physical torture and harassment at home or in the workplace are never considered as violence. In spite of the increasing crime against women, many laws…badly affect women instead of protecting them.”

Women are the poorest of Pakistan’s working class. All are deprived of basic provisions, such as clean drinking water or medical treatment. Housing and education are not a right. Jobs are insecure, low-paid and dangerous.

Women work in the massive informal sector, outside protective labour laws — as domestic servants, in the clothing and agricultural industries, at brick works and construction sites. In a workforce that is only 5% unionised, women in trade unions are less than 1%. The majority of women workers are illiterate.

Simy Gulzar, WWO’s General Secretary, pinpoints “feudalism and imperialism, and their religious and patriarchal buttresses,” as the basis of Pakistani women’s sub-human status. The organisation prioritises political education and leadership training. Simy explains: “Once women workers understand how the economic system oppresses them — as women and as workers — and see the power of united struggle, they are ready to fight capitalism.”

Going to where the women are. With posters, skits and role plays, the campaign went everywhere — to local communities, factories, campuses and trade unions.

Meetings of women and their families discussed and confronted domestic violence. They heard how the laws, police and courts get away with doing nothing, because brutalising women is considered as natural. In schools, young women and men talked about how to eradicate a tradition that allows men to beat and murder women. These gatherings resolved that the practice will end only when well-informed, angry voices replace silent suffering.

Working men heard about the need to join women in collective action for labour laws that will protect their working sisters from mental and physical harassment. Unions recognised their responsibility to prioritise the issues of women workers and end sexist discrimination. As long as bosses can super-exploit half the workforce, they concluded, the movement is weakened.

The campaign finished on December 10 with a public forum in the village of Sialkot. Hundreds of women, children and men joined in. The resounding message was this: the systemic cruelty against women violates everyone’s human rights. The meeting demanded that the Pakistani government treat all violence against women as serious crimes.

Bridge to freedom. WWO says that the struggle will finish only when class disappears and with it, the economic basis for one group to enslave and abuse another. The Campaign Against Gender Violence was an awesome step toward this end. Working women and men, both ruthlessly exploited by the global profit system, will one day march together as a mighty force. Says Simy Gulzar, the prize for Pakistan’s majority is taking power — and building a society where everyone is free and valued.

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