Poverty, class and abuse

The twin stigma of sexual violence and poverty makes victims suffer in silence

Poverty, class and abuse
A Jirga of elders led by a local landlord in the Umerkot town of Sindh settled a rape case by forcing the 14-year-old survivor’s family to accept 30 maunds of wheat as compensation and withdraw the complaint registered at the local police station, according to recent newspapers reports. When her poor father declined to accept the terms, the entire family was coerced to leave the area.

This tragic incident speaks volumes about the interrelationship between poverty, class and abuse. Even if the girl’s father withstands the pressure of the influential men, he may still have to undergo a lengthy and potentially fruitless ordeal because of the shortcomings of our criminal justice system.

In recent decades, high sounding reforms efforts and hefty budgetary grants to improve the quality of police services to make the criminal justice system service-oriented could not succeed. Even in a large city like Lahore, the presence of a parallel court was reported by mainstream media. Currently, the social and economic costs of seeking justice are beyond the capacity of the poor. This institutional weakness serves as a virtual incentive to the socially dominant segments of the society to act at their whims. Very recently, in at least two high profile cases, people accused of murder went free because of their influence and wealth. In a society where might is literally right, only the privileged few can reap the fruits of justice.
The fabric of social relations generates and perpetuates exploitation

Rape has much to do with poverty and class structure in addition to institutional shortcomings. Wherever the class difference is acute, due to the severity of economic disparities, the incidence of rape is high. In relatively egalitarian societies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the phenomenon of rape is less common, vis-a-vis the stratified societies of the Punjab and Sindh. This may sound a bit Marxist, but unfortunately the visible pattern of relations between poverty and rape gives some credence to the poverty-rape nexus. The phenomenon cannot be segregated on rural-urban basis, but since in agrarian settings the extent of poverty of rural landless class is more acute than their urban counterparts, the exploitation also becomes more extreme in rural areas. The nature of social and economic relations in certain situations breeds exploitation and its extreme manifestation is sexual abuse or rape.

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, a not-for-profit organization, says people living in poverty and lacking economic power and resources are at a greater risk of sexual violence. In those parts of Pakistan where social inequalities and the extent of poverty are high, the risk of abuse remains high. Poverty remains at the core of the problem.  In The Emergence of Socialist Thought Among North Indian Muslims, while explaining the relation between poverty and exploitation, Khizer Humayun Ansari asserts that it is the fabric of social relations that generates and perpetuates exploitation. Sahir Ludhianvi expressed the same through his poetry. His poems Chakley and Jaagir describe agony of the poor whose poverty makes them victims of exploitation, including rape. His poem Jaagir gives a graphic depiction of relation between poverty and sexual abuse.

 Kis mein juraat hai ke is raaz ki tashir kar

Sab ke lab per meri haibat ka fasun taaari hai

Jaane un marmarin jimson ko ye mariyal dahqan

Kaise in tirah gharondon mein janam dete hain

The dream of ultimate economic emancipation of the poor and the end of all sorts of abuse including rape seems naive in the current socio-economic setting of our society. Legal instruments and enforcement institutions exist, but the poor victims of rape have very limited hope of getting justice. The twin stigma of sexual violence and poverty make majority of the victims suffer in silence.

Nevertheless, the poor should not be left at the mercy of fate. At least an incremental change is quite probable if the intelligentsia, the literati, the media and the civil society make efforts to sensitize the society at large. Today, more powerful tools of communication are available to move people for change, such as films, as used by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. We desperately need writers and poets like Manto and Sahir to sensitize the society about the hideous aspects of the sexual abuse and its relation with poverty.

Legislative action to protect poor workers in informal sectors of the economy, such as domestic helpers, is still awaited. A majority of such workers are women, and are potential victims of exploitation and abuse. Moral education is a missing link in the curricula of schools in Pakistan. But the alleviation of poverty must remain at the center of governmental policies.