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Two teenagers in Karachi, Pakistan were recently electrocuted because they planned to elope in defiance of the tradition of arranged marriage. In 2016, an anti-honor killing law was enacted, but these atrocities continue. The International Honour Based Violence Network (HBVA) estimates about one thousand honor killings are committed each year in Pakistan, which is twenty percent of all such killings worldwide. Deeply embedded religious and cultural traditions are formidable headwinds to eradicating honor killings in Pakistan.

Islam is the state religion of Pakistan, and although the religion does not specifically condone honor killings, most Islamic authorities have failed to “unambiguously denounce the practice.” Furthermore, under Sharia Islamic law, certain practices like adultery are punishable by death. Honor killings have their foundation in the belief that women are the property of men and “embody the honor of the men to whom they belong.” Women are held responsible for upholding honor for their families, and any behavior impugning honor is seen to require punishment.

Honor killings are justified for a range of offenses, from talking to an unrelated male to refusing to accept an arranged marriage. This justification is reinforced by communal acceptance that honor is a private matter that transcends law. Because of the shame associated with sanctioned behaviors, victimized women are reluctant to seek legal protection. Furthermore, women have limited judicial access, and there is a virtual absence of female judges in the country. The Pakistani government is not blind to this dilemma nor is it deaf to the cries of the international community that honor killing must be stopped.

As a member of the UN, Pakistan is bound by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has signed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which is the key international convention protecting women from gender-based violence. The duty to investigate and prosecute violence against women is a state’s international obligation under CEDAW. However, in Pakistan, international treaties must be incorporated in national legislation to become a part of domestic law. Three Pakistani laws have advanced women’s rights subsequent to CEDAW:  the 2004 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act; the 2006 Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act; and the October 2016 anti-honor killing legislation. The first bars the accused murderer from acting as wali or legal guardian and thereby benefiting from Islamic provisions of qisas (retribution) and diyat (blood money paid to the heirs of murder victim). The 2006 legislation creates a distinction between zina (extra-marital consensual sex) and rape. The 2016 legislation mandates life imprisonment for convicted murderers in honor killings even if they are forgiven by the victim’s relatives.

While this legislation shows progress in the effort to enforce sanctions against honor killings, the transformation of cultural norms and traditions will be an evolutionary process.  Prevention of violence and treatment for those who have been affected are both critical elements in that evolution, but true transformative change can only happen when there is gender equality in Pakistan. While it may seem like baby steps on this journey, Pakistan is accepting this challenge, and the country has become ground zero for international efforts to end violence against women.

The US Department of State is providing financial support for a UN Women initiative to make the Pakistani criminal justice system more accessible to and supportive of women. As part of a “Safe Cities” project this year, the UN introduced a pilot program to make public transportation safe and harassment free for women. In addition, four agencies have joined forces in the UN Joint Global Program on Essential Services for Women and Girls Subject to Violence to expand services provided to women who have been victims of gender-based violence, and Pakistan was chosen as the pilot country for implementation in 2017-2018.

In addition to international efforts to prevent violence against women, Pakistani women have begun to challenge the old-world traditions. There is no greater evidence of that call to action than Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Academy Award winning documentary, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” The documentary is a heart-rending story of a woman who was shot in the head, put in a bag, and thrown into a river by her father and uncle because she had fallen in love with a man of whom her family disapproved. Having just previewed Obaid-Chinoy’s film, Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif pronounced the governments renewed commitment to end violence against women with the statement “there is no honor in honour killing.”