Researchers, lawyers and activists on Friday discussed the findings of a new study which said fragmented policies against domestic violence, patriarchal household dynamics and harmful perceptions about gender roles left women in Pakistan at risk of aggressive behaviour from men close to them.

The speakers gathered at a two-day seminar at the Aga Khan University to have a closer look at the study — Intimate partner violence and men in South Asia: From research to action — which explored the individual, family and community drivers of violence in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal and proposed policy interventions to protect women in the three nations.

The seminar was organised by AKU’s working group for women and the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health in partnership with London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the Nepal Institute For Social and Environmental Research, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, USA, and UK Aid.

The speakers said intimate partner violence (IPV) was when physical abuse was committed against a person by those close to them such as spouses, partners and relatives. The report found that conservative social norms about women’s rights were commonplace in the three countries. It also pointed out Pakistan had a range of social groups propagating views that condoned violence against women and also had ‘highly fragmented’ social and legislative protection for women.

Speaking about the relevance of the study’s findings, Dr Fiona Samuels, senior research fellow at the ODI said: “IPV in South Asia is a major public health and human rights issue, situated in a wider context of very high levels of gender inequality.

“Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan rank 111th, 108th and 121st out of 152 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index. We encourage public and private stakeholders in these three countries to take the findings seriously and to assess how these insights can be incorporated into policies and specific programmes.”

Triggers of violence

Dr Nargis Asad of the AKU’s working group for women said there was a great deal of evidence of the harm that IPV caused to women’s health, peace of mind and prospects of their children, but there was little analysis on why men and boys turned violent against women.

“This study evaluates how the ideas of Pakistan’s adolescent boys and young men as well as the institutions and interest groups in our society are leaving women vulnerable.”

She said understanding reasons behind the violence was essential to protect women and ensure they were treated as equals.

The speakers said researchers conducted in-depth interviews and focus group meetings with men, boys and survivors of violence in three neighbourhoods of Karachi — Lyari, Shah Faisal Colony and Deh Chohar. Leading figures in the health and education sectors as well as officials in the police and social affairs departments were consulted.

At the individual level, the researchers found several participants described violence against women as “extremely common” with abuse being a result of jealousy, suspicion or man taking offence to a woman not “listening” to him.

They said being exposed to norms that accepted male dominance or violence made young men nearly five times as likely to justify IPV. They noted a son was more likely to be violent against women if he saw his father beating his mother.

Key factors

Factors such as poverty, substance abuse and a lack of education were found to increase the likelihood of men being violent against women.

Besides addressing structural triggers such as lack of education and jobs, the researchers recommended engaging with adolescents at an early age through youth groups and school-based activities where they were more likely to be receptive to positive social messages.

Within families, the study found marital conflict tied to a woman’s perceived role in maintaining the household and the expectation of following decisions made by men led to many incidents of violence.

Worryingly, many of the men interviewed described violence as being necessary to “control” women and cited various interpretations of religion to justify their actions.

The study said family members often caused tensions in the household by taking sides against women who were expected to obey their husbands. To address these problems, they called for targeted programmes designed to make husbands, fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law reflect on their behaviour and to expose them to alternative forms of masculinity.

At the community level, the study found incidents of IPV were seen as a private matter to be settled within families and noted approaching police or courts was considered ‘bad’.

To help tackle the problem, the researchers called for awareness activities about IPV to be conducted through health clinics, community activists and women’s networks to challenge existing norms in communities.

The discussion found 12 specific laws related to the protection of women. They regretted those policies were poorly implemented with each province differing in their approach to the laws.