More than 100 schools for girls have been torched or blasted by militants in the Swat valley and other tribal areas, where it is feared that as many as 100,000 girls may now be denied their basic right to an education.
The militants have warned all parents to remove their daughters from school or face direct attacks on the girls. Women have been told to wear the veil and not leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. The Pakistani government is said to have agreed the introduction of sharia law with the militants as an inducement to stop the fighting.
Government sanction of a parallel legal system used to deny the basic rights of women and girls, is both unconstitutional and unacceptable. Reports suggest that more than 70 Taliban courts are already operating in the region, handing down punishments that include flogging. With no indication of when girls' schools in the region will reopen and with appeasement of the militants an apparent priority, the government claims to be doing all it can to restore law and order, but it seems to have excluded consideration of more than half its population.
Law and order is certainly something that would be very much welcomed by Mukhtar Mai. She was gang-raped in 2002 on the orders of an illegal tribal court in punishment for an alleged crime of her 12-year-old brother. She has still not won justice. After years of struggling to bring her attackers to account after the High Court overturned their convictions in 2005, she had a message at the end of last year –which she says was sent by the Federal Minister for Defence Production, Sardar Abdul Qayyum – warning her to drop all charges against the 13 men accused.
If she failed to do so, he and his associates would ensure the case did not go in her favour. The case has been adjourned indefinitely by the Supreme Court, and Ms Mai believes that naming the minister has put her life in further danger.
The disregard of justice and contempt for women's rights has spread through goverment. Women's groups protested when Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani was appointed Minister of Education last year, months after he had presided over an illegal tribal court which gave away five girls, aged two to five, as compensation in a local dispute.
The Pakistani government also elevated Israrullah Zehri to the position of Minister of Postal Services, after he had defended the slaughter of three teenage girls and two adult women in Balochistan because the girls sought to choose their own marriage partners. He is said to have ansered parliamentery questions with: "These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them".
Observers may be forgiven for questioning the resolve of the government to insist on girls' education, an end to violence against women and equal rights in the Swat valley and other tribal areas. As equal citizens, the women of Pakistan deserve to see their rights safeguarded, not sacrificed at the altar of extremism or left in the hands of cabinet members for whom Pakistan's constitutional protections have little meaning.
If the government of Pakistan is truly committed to ending violence against women and promoting equality, it must send the clear message that women's rights are not negotiable. And start by putting its own house in order.
Anber Raz is the Asia Programme officer of Equality Now, an international women's rights organisation
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