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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Pakistan's rising toll of domestic violence
Pakistani women
Women sometimes have little idea of their rights
By Susannah Price in Islamabad

Aid workers in Pakistan have called for an urgent increase in the number of safe shelters available to the growing number of women who are victims of domestic violence.

Three times he told me he was divorcing me. Then he took a knife and cut off the end of my nose and all my hair.

Human rights workers says each year large numbers of women are beaten, tortured or burnt by their husbands or families, and they have few places to escape to.

Some have had their bones broken or their faces mutilated.

Seventeen-year-old Tehmina was married off to a businessman four times her age. She never considered leaving him despite the regular beatings.

But one day he went much further - when the whole family was out, he locked her in the bedroom. Tehmina says she was tied by her hands and feet to a bed while her husband announced three times he was divorcing her.

"Then he took a knife and cut off the end of my nose and all my hair."

Making choices

Tehmina is now at a shelter in Islamabad receiving medical treatment while her husband is in prison.

Injured women
Horiffic injuries are sometimes inflicted

Aid workers say many women remain in violent relationships because they believe they must obey their husbands and that divorce is a disgrace.

A third of women in Pakistan are illiterate and have little concept about making their own choices.

Dr Noreen Khalid, programme officer for the shelter, says this imbalance can encourage abusive relationships.

"[The husband] sometimes becomes so powerful he becomes a sadist and he just forgets that his partner, his wife, is a human being," she says.

The shelter, which provides a safe haven for women and their children, is one of only two independently-run refuges which are open to all women.

The government-run shelters are only for those referred by the courts.

Legal help

But this is not only a place to hide and recuperate.

There needs to be special legislation on domestic violence [that] must mention that this is violence and a crime

Nahida Mahboob Elahi

It also offers the women the chance to talk about their problems, to restore their self-esteem, and even plan for the future.

The abused women often need practical support as well, such as legal advice to bring criminal cases.

But aid workers say the system is often stacked against the women.

The police often refuse to register cases unless there are obvious signs of injury and judges sometimes seem to sympathise with the husbands.

Nahida Mahboob Elahi, a human rights lawyer at the centre, wants new laws to be implemented.

"There needs to be special legislation on domestic violence and in that context they must mention that this is violence and a crime."

Lenient treatment

Zahida Perveen's husband accused her of being unfaithful and cut off her nose and ears and gouged out her eyes.

He is sitting quietly in jail, he is not feeling the same pain which I have felt, not going through the same misery I've gone through

Zahida Parveen

The centre helped her go abroad for treatment and to prosecute her husband, who is now serving a 14-year prison sentence.

Zahida, who is now blind, appreciated the support, but tells Nahida that she feels the sentence was far too lenient.

"He is sitting quietly in jail, he is not feeling the same pain which I have felt, not going through the same misery I've gone through, so this is not enough," she says.

The women are offered the chance to meet their husbands again to try to hammer out their problems. This sometimes leads to reconciliation.

Second chance

Humaira was constantly beaten by her husband and other members of his family before she finally ran away with their two children.

But she has recently met her husband again and after he apologised, she says she is prepared to give him a second chance.

The authorities in Pakistan appear to recognise the scale of domestic violence. But aid workers say not enough is being done.

They believe the victims need a proper network of support across the country - and that their attackers must not escape justice.

See also:

22 Sep 99 | South Asia
Pakistan honour killings condemned
27 Aug 99 | South Asia
Bride burning 'kills hundreds'
30 Nov 99 | South Asia
Analysis: Justice under scrutiny
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