Protecting women

Hishalini deserved more from life, writes Mahum Kidwai

Protecting women
Whether it be an educated, loved and privileged young woman in an elite house in an upscale neighborhood in Islamabad (Pakistan), or a young 16-year-old underprivileged domestic worker in a minister’s house in Colombo (Sri Lanka), violence against women and girls in South Asia is no myth by any stretch of the imagination.

Violence against women and girls may be the most widespread violation of human rights worldwide, globally affecting one in three women in her lifetime, with most of this violence perpetrated by an intimate partner. In Asia and the Pacific, VAWG remains unacceptably high and severe. Over 37 per cent of women in South Asia, 40 per cent of women in South East Asia and 68 per cent of women in the Pacific have experienced violence at the hands of their partners. It devastates lives, fractures families and communities, and stalls development. Women are vulnerable to violence as a result of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and inequalities, including age, ethnicity, caste, poverty, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, indigeneity, nationality, and immigration status just to identify a few.

Violence against women and girls is firmly rooted in deeply ingrained patriarchal, cultural and religious norms in society and institutions place a lower value on women and girls and contribute to high levels of acceptance of violence by both men and women, allowing it to continue, often unchallenged. Violence against women and girls occurs at home, in workplaces, in public spaces and online, and can culminate in femicide, the murder of women and girls. In the past week alone, Pakistani twitter has seen loud calls to end the systematic increase in femicide within the country, and in Sri Lanka, we see how devastating situations can put those most economically and financially vulnerable members of society in such desperate situations where they are forced to work and sustain abuse of the most horrific nature, and in some cases, do not survive it.

Violence against women and girls is a major impediment to women’s economic empowerment and sustainable development. Violence, both at home and at the workplace, carries varied and considerable costs to affected individuals, their families, communities, businesses and societies. The costs of violence against women include lost productivity, costs for police and justice agencies, health care, social protection, welfare and education systems. Globally, VAWG is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) due to loss of incomes, opportunities and workplace productivity. Intimate partner violence has been calculated to cost the world economy more than USD $8 trillion a year.
Sri Lankan former minister Richard Bathiudeen’s household came under suspicion when a 16-year-old girl, Hishalini, who was working as a domestic helper at his Colombo residence succumbed to burn injuries

In Sri Lanka this past week, tragic news broke when detained Sri Lankan former minister Richard Bathiudeen’s household came under suspicion when a 16-year-old girl, Hishalini, who was working as a domestic helper at his Colombo residence succumbed to burn injuries on Thursday (July 15). Police media spokesman Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Ajith Rohana said the teenage girl had died upon admission to the National Hospital in Colombo. She was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital early July and had died after being treated for nearly 12 days.

“The girl was 16 years and eight months old,” he said. Sri Lankan police launched an investigation and 10 statements have already been recorded, he said. According to Rohana, the teenager was a resident of Dayagama and had come to work as a maid at the former minister’s house nine months ago. “The autopsy of the girl was performed yesterday night” he said, and upon further update, it was revealed that she had been sexually abused.

In January 2021, Sri Lanka raised the minimum age of employment from 14 to 16 following an amendment to the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 of 1956. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) said the decision was based on an earlier decision to extend the age of compulsory education to 16 years, which was made under the Education Ordinance’s regulations pertaining to compulsory education. With the new change in the law, children between the ages of 16 and 18 years can only be recruited for jobs that do not pose a threat to their life, health, education and moral development, and it is strictly not allowed to recruit them for unsafe jobs or jobs that require them to work at night.

Meanwhile, the body of the victim was brought to her residence in Diyagama yesterday. Residents of the area also staged a protest compelling the authorities to hold a formal investigation into the death of a 16-year-old girl. According to media reports, the protestors, including Parliamentarian Radha Krishnan, pointed out that in view of the postmortem report the authorities should hold a formal inquiry and arrest the individuals who raped the girl. He further stressed that it was the responsibility of the authorities to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents and to provide protection to the hundreds of estate sector children employed in Colombo and several other areas.

This horrific incident is only one in a sea of thousands, and has garnered this much media attention because it involves everything required for a good “story”; politicians, drama, scandal. Unfortunately, this is the daily plight of several thousand female workers in this region, with laws doing very little to nothing to protect them. What’s worse, is when these are our children.

Closer to home, we saw Pakistan being shaken to its core by the brutal murder of Noor Mukadam this week. Noor Mukadam, 27, daughter of ex-Pakistani Ambassador Shaukat Mukadam, was murdered in the capital’s upscale Sector F-7/4 area on Tuesday. “A man named Zahir Jaffer was arrested on the spot and taken to the police station,” the Islamabadi police was quoted as saying.

The hashtags Justice For Hishalini and Justice For Noor have been trending in Sri Lanka and Pakistan respectively, and one wonders whether the plight of our women will eventually be reduced to changing hashtags, and also whether our dwindling numbers will ultimately be reduced to being reported as grim statistics in a conversation that’s so polarized, nobody seems to want to have it.

Stop the femicide.

Stop making conditions for women and young girls so dire, that their very safety becomes a burden, rather than being an expected norm within the societies we live in.

Hishalini deserved more from life, and to see more of life.

Noor deserved so much more than to leave this earth because of a deranged lunatic and his unchecked privilege.

These are only two of the names we have felt pain for this week; with each minute that passes by, more die. When will governments, judiciaries and law enforcement decide that it is important enough to implement harsher punishments for the heathens committing these crimes among us? Let us not wait to mourn our dead; let us change the mindset within our societies to shift from victim blaming to taking action where it needs to be taken. Change our men, to save our women.