Shahina Imran, 30, describes her marriage as "happy". She said she "remains busy" all day with household chores, cooking for her husband and two children and doing other domestic tasks at her home in Shahdra, on the outskirts of Lahore. She does not see herself as a victim of domestic abuse.
Like so many other women in a society in which few are aware of their rights, she accepts the regular slaps, kicks and severe verbal abuse that she says are meted out to her by her husband, Javed Imran, a plumber, as "what can be expected in married life".
This attitude is not surprising, given that Shahina's two elder sisters, and many of the other women she meets at the grocery store or near her house, face a similar fate.
Domestic violence is endemic in Pakistan. The New York-based Human Rights Watch, in one of the most detailed reports on domestic violence in the country published in 1999, found that up to 90 percent of women in Pakistan were subject to verbal, sexual, emotional or physical abuse, within their own homes.
Sadly, there is little evidence that the situation has improved dramatically eight years on. Asma Jahangir, a leading lawyer and rights activist, said: "Domestic violence is very widespread. It is tied in to the lack of empowerment of women in our society."
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Women's rights activists have long argued that the issue is linked to the “second class” status of women in society.
This is a reality reinforced by laws that discriminate against them in terms of the right to inherit property, the amount of blood money given as compensation for physical hurt, and by the failure to eradicate traditions such as 'vani', under which a woman is handed over in marriage to an aggrieved party to settle a dispute, usually after a murder.
Over the past decade, however, awareness of the issue has risen.
Since 2006 the Pakistan Ministry of Women's Development has been running at least 10 crisis centres in major cities, where victims of domestic abuse or other violence receive legal, financial and psychological support, and counselling regarding their options.
Domestic violence has also been discussed in both Pakistan's provincial and national assemblies. A draft Protection Against Domestic Violence of Women and Children Act was drawn up by the Federal Law Ministry early in 2007, but has not yet been passed.
Photo: Zofeen Ebrahim/IRIN
|Domestic violence remains endemic in the country|
These efforts also appear to have had some positive impact on police efforts to curb domestic violence. In a high profile case in January 2007, Karachi police arrested a national sporting hero, Moin Khan, a former captain of Pakistan's cricket team, after his wife complained of being beaten by him.
He was later released on bail, but the case focused public attention on the issue and underscored that assault on wives was a crime under Pakistani law. Yet despite these developments, violence remains widespread.
A study published in June 2006 in the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association,
At times, the violence inflicted on women takes on truly horrendous forms. The Islamabad-based Progressive Women's Association (PWA), headed by Shahnaz Bukhari, believes up to 4,000 women are burnt each year, almost always by husbands or in-laws, often as “punishment” for minor “offences” or for failure to bring in a sufficient dowry.
The PWA said it had collected details of nearly 8,000 such victims from March 1994 to March 2007, from three hospitals in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area alone.
Just recently in Karachi, Ameena Ali, 22, addressed a press conference at which she said her husband, Muhammad Ali, had splashed acid on her face, causing severe disfigurement and damage to her eye-sight.
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Ameena, a mother of two small girls, who sought help from Madadgar, a non-governmental organisation dedicated in assisting abused women and children in Pakistan, said her husband suspected her of having extra-marital relations.
"He threw acid on her face and fled," wept Ameena's distraught mother, Kaneez Fatima. Her husband is currently in police custody, but Ameena is concerned he may attack her and his two daughters if he is released.
"Such cases are not unusual in our society," I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told IRIN.
A lack of safe shelters for women victims of domestic violence, limited awareness of the issue and the absence of specific legislation all compound the problem.
The result is that thousands of women are victims of severe violence within their homes, with most cases going unreported and the culprits consequently escaping any punishment for their crime.