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A War on Pakistan’s Schoolgirls

by Yasmeen Hassan

Monday 26 January 2009, by siawi

(Published earlier in

Washington Post
- January 26, 2009; Page A11

I have such fond childhood memories of summer holidays in the Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, a place well known among Pakistanis for its breathtaking views, cool summer climate and lush fruit orchards. But today the Swat Valley is experiencing heartbreaking pressures, as the Taliban strike with disconcerting regularity and, among other atrocities, impose a ban on the education of girls.

Even before this ban was put in place on Jan. 15, more than 100 schools for girls in Swat, as well as more than 150 such schools in the greater Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), had been shut down, many after being bombed or torched, leaving approximately 100,000 girls out of school. Radio announcements warned girls that they could be attacked with acid if they dared to attend school, and teachers have been threatened and killed. Last Monday, five more Swat Valley schools were bombed.

The attacks and threats have not been confined to schoolgirls. Women and girls have been ordered to wear full veils. Directives have been issued requiring that women be accompanied by male family members in public places and forbidding women from carrying compulsory government identification cards displaying their photographs. About a dozen women have been shot for “immoral activities,” including Bakht Zeba, a 45-year-old social worker committed to advancing girls’ education. The area seems to be in competition with Afghanistan over which will establish the worst record on women’s rights.

The Pakistani and Afghan governments have responded similarly to the Taliban’s penchant for terrorizing the population. A few months ago, Afghanistan sought to enter into negotiations with the Taliban, a precondition of which would be the imposition of sharia (Islamic law). While those talks have not yet gone forward, Pakistan seems to be on the brink of accepting enforcement of sharia in the FATA territories. Reports indicate that more than 70 Taliban courts already operate in the Swat Valley, a first step toward implementation of the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia. That the government is open to negotiating on this issue shows that it has no regard for what such a move would mean for Pakistani women.

The lives of Afghan women and girls remain precarious. Schoolgirls continue to be attacked. Women in public office are threatened or killed. Malalai Joya, a female political leader who has been wrongly suspended from parliament, has been forced into hiding because of threats against her. Only a few months ago, Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s most senior female police officer, was shot dead. Pakistan must not become another Afghanistan.

The unfolding disaster in Pakistan demands an immediate response both from the Pakistani government and the international community. Pakistan must accept its responsibility to take urgent action to protect the rights of women and to curb the Talibanization of the country. Any intervention must be based on upholding Pakistan’s commitments under its own constitution and under international human rights instruments that it has ratified. The various branches of government — the legislature, executive and judiciary — must work in concert to address this situation in a comprehensive manner.

Last week, the Pakistani government announced that it will reopen the schools in the northern areas in March, after their winter recess, but in view of the loss of huge areas to the effective control of the Taliban, it is clear that will be difficult. On Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day in the United States — Parliament voted unanimously to condemn and reject the Jan. 15 Taliban school closings. Now the government should immediately announce its commitment to implementing a plan to ensure that all girls have access to education, as well as to safeguard them not only in school but also outside of school.

President Obama has put Pakistan at the forefront of the war on terrorism. The 2008 Biden-Lugar bill in the Senate calling for a tripling of nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, to $1.5 billion annually for five years, is expected to be revived this year as the Kerry-Lugar bill and has the support of the Obama administration. To avoid the mistakes of the Bush administration, not only should there be greater accountability for how these funds are used, but the money should be conditioned on the Pakistani government taking active steps to curb the Talibanization of the country and, in particular, to uphold and protect the rights of girls and women. The consequences of inaction or inadequate action could be devastating.

Yasmeen Hassan is a Pakistani lawyer and the deputy director of programs at Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization based in New York.