Pakistan and dangerous divorce

Divorce|Family|Family Law|January 9th 2013

A new report from Reuters paints a stark portrait of life in Pakistan for some unhappily married women.

Imagine living in a country in which contacting a divorce lawyer doesn’t just mean changing your life, it means taking your life in your hands. A world in which you could face a choice between living with a frighteningly abusive husband and feeding your children. What follows applies to some cases in Pakistan, but these tragedies can happen in the West too.

As a divorce lawyer I am only too well aware of this.

Pakistan is a socially conservative and sometimes troubled country, where women seeking divorce run the risk of being murdered in so-called ‘honour killings’. Some, according to the article, are shot after leaving court or even right in front of their solicitors.

A human rights lawyer quoted in the article called Hina Jilani has personal experience of this dreadful phenomenon: a young woman who came to her seeking divorce was shot by her own mother, in front of Jilani.

Last summer, meanwhile a popular singer and beauty called Ghazala Javed was shot dead alongside her father after seeking a divorce.

There were it seems well over 1,500 honour killings in Pakistan last year, the report claims, all carried out by members of the victim’s own families for behaviour supposed to have brought shame and dishonour.

Nevertheless there is hope. Despite the risks, the national divorce rate is creeping upwards as ever greater numbers of Pakistani women find jobs and the independence and self-confidence that comes with employment.

There were a reported 557 divorces in Islamabad last year – a modest number for the capital of a densely populated country certainly, but still more than two and half times the rate a decade earlier.

This parallels a doubling of the number of women  with jobs in the country – now more than 12 million compared to less than six million in 2002.

I liked the brisk views of a young reporter called Rabia, quoted by article author Aisha Chowdhry. Her comment neatly sums up the ways in which employment can change the outlook of previously disempowered women:

“If you are earning, the only thing you need from the guy is love and affection. If the guy is not even providing that, then you leave him.”

Who would not be moved by the story of ‘Fatima’, a young mother who divorced her violent husband after  a full seven long years of domestic violence and beatings. Sadly, she struggled to find work and her husband refused to pay maintenance. So she remarried her abusive husband. He now pays their children’s school fees and she sleeps behind a locked door. Simultaneously a tragic victim and a heroine.

The challenges faced by unhappily married women in Pakistan are formidable: not just the risk of violence or the difficulty of finding the money to pay for a lawyer (they can cost as much as a year’s salary), but also a lingering social stigma attached, making it hard for many divorcees to remarry. Even court-sanctioned child support payments are rare, leaving many women in a very difficult position.

I see determination and bravery in these women fleeing loveless, abusive marriages. They are  sadly, however, are not confined to one country. Violence at the beginning, middle and end of a marriage is not uncommon everywhere else. Human nature prevails across the globe and violence can occur in even the most westernised of families. It would be wrong to suggest that divorce in Pakistan brings with it a greater risk than exists in other countries.

Here at Stowe Family Law we experienced one of these most tragic of cases a couple of years ago when a client was murdered. We had to stand by in horror as the devastated family tried to pick up the pieces. If someone is minded to kill, main and injure, nothing will stop him or her, no matter the whereabouts of the couple, or the legal system in place.

Photo of Islamabad by Yasir Hussain via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

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