he International Women’s Day is to be celebrated on March 8. This day is a focal point in the movement for women’s rights around the world. The Pakistani movement for the rights of women can be traced back to 1948 when thousands of women marched to the Assembly Chambers in an attempt to secure their economic rights. The movement was strengthened with the establishment of the Shirkat Gah, a feminist NGO. The 1979 Hudood Ordinance under Gen Zia was a major setback. This ordinance made it almost impossible for women to prove rape. The National Commission on Status of Women found that 80 percent of the women charged with adultery had been jailed for their failure to prove their allegation of rape in a court.
Since then, through advocacy and activism things have changed. In 2010, rape was removed as an offence from the Hudood Ordinance and placed instead in the Penal Code. This led to the offence being tried under the penal provisions, Criminal Procedure Code and the Law of Evidence. The recent elimination of the two-finger test, as admissible evidence in rape cases, is another step towards ensuring access to justice and legal protection for women in Pakistan.
A major challenge faced by women today is the lack of access to health care. Around 70 percent of women classified as poor do not have access to a skilled healthcare professional when giving birth. Where women do have access and awareness, many are barred from making important decisions independently owing to patriarchal norms. The coronavirus lockdowns, when they were in fore, further increased problems of mobility and accessibility for women. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also recorded a 25 per cent increase in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault during the initial months of lockdown.
In their manifestos, the Aurat March organisers, are demanding that the health budget be increased to five percent of the GDP. The Aurat March teams are set to march for gender equality on International Women’s Day 2021. While Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad usually dominate the landscape of media visibility when it comes to the Aurat March this year, Multan and Hyderabad have now emerged as strong participants as well.