Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pakistan Mourns Death of High Profile Women’s Rights Activist

Zilla Huma Usman, long time human rights activist, and Minister for Social Issues in the Pakistani Punjab region, paid a high price for her outspoken views and struggle to improve women’s rights in the province. During an official visit in mid-February, Ms. Usman was assassinated by a gunman with an alleged long history of violence against women.

It was learned that the gunman assassinated the high profile government official because he strongly believed that women have no place outside of the home and should not be involved in government and public affairs. According to the Pakistani Associated Press, the attacker had previously been charged with murdering twelve female sex trade workers. The courts subsequently ordered his release due to lack of evidence against him.

Fears among women, children, and other vulnerable groups have increased since this incident. Local media report many women expressing fear for leaving the home even for short periods of time.

The 36 year old Zilla Huma Usman obtained a law degree in 1997 and a Masters Degree in Political Science in 1998 from the University of Punjab, Lahore. She was elected as Member of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab in the 2002 general elections with the help of a gender equity measure that reserved a number of legislative seats for women. Ms. Usman first worked as Parliamentary Secretary for Planning and Development and assumed her present role of Minister for Social Welfare in December 2006.

The country reacted passionately to this tragedy, and Pakistani government leaders issued statements condemning the heinous crime, offering condolences to Ms. Usman’s family, and pledging support to continue improving the rights of women in Pakistan.

Pakistan has made some advances in women’s rights recently such as amending the controversial Hudood Ordinances which made women liable for denouncing rape and other “honour” crimes. However, the struggle to bring an end to discrimination and violence against women in the country is far from over. Pakistan’s obligations towards the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women have fallen short and women continue to experience violence as a result of discriminatory laws and practices. Strong advocacy is needed to help implement anti-discrimination laws at all levels.

The White Ribbon Campaign has been adopted locally through the support of several non-governmental organizations such as PAVHNA, Rozan, Shail, Sungi Foundation, SACHET, Men and Boys Action for Change, and Women’s Empowerment Group. These NGOs have been working hard to promote the involvement of men and boys in the prevention of violence against women in Pakistan.

Ms. Usman’s work and sacrifice and the work of other courageous leaders like her shall not go unnoticed and forgotten. Together we can rise and speak out against horrible crimes such as these and join forces with other men, women, and organizations to bring an end to violence against women in Pakistan and around the world. Our sincere condolences to Ms. Usman’s family and to the people of Pakistan for the loss of a great voice for women’s rights.

- Humberto Carolo, White Ribbon Campaign Canada

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