Pakistan: Death penalty by non state actors - "Swara" killings continue

IPS via South Asia Citizen's Wire
Women are given in marriage to hostile families as compensation for a relative's crime in a practise called "swara" in Pashtun, parts of Afghanistan and the NWFP, and "vanni" in the Punjab. Although officially outlawed in Pakistan, the custom prevails.
In 2005, 17-year-old Rubina Bibi died under mysterious circumstances after eating a meal in the small village of Kas Koroona, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). She was living at the time in an animal shed -- the only place where her in-laws would allow her to stay.
Not far away, in another village called Gumbat Banda, villagers have "disclosed to me in hushed tones that young Tayyaba, who died a month and a half after her marriage in June 2006, was actually poisoned by her in-laws," Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and rights activist heading Ethnomedia and Development, a non-governmental organisation, told IPS. Tayyaba Begum, 20, was tortured by her in-laws from the day she entered their home, Minallah believes.

Zarmina Bibi, 19, married in February 2006, was allegedly shot dead by her brother-in-law two months after her marriage. Her mother-in-law claimed the girl was cleaning her husband's rifle and it went off. Zarmina's mother believes her daughter was murdered by the in-laws, Rafaqat Bibi, a social activist working in Mardan -- and no relation to Zarmina or Rubina -- told IPS.

"For as long as I can remember, I've witnessed swara, but killing these poor women is a fairly recent phenomenon," said Rafaqat Bibi, who has observed the trend since 1998.

Kamila Hayat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told IPS via email from LaHore, "Swara is a virtual death penalty for young women who become victims of the tradition."

"Even in cases where they are not physically killed, the humiliation and misery they face, sometimes for an entire lifetime, is a terrible punishment. It is made all the worse by the fact that the women concerned are of course not guilty of any crime," Hayat added.

Assistant professor Fouzia Naeem Khan, a clinical psychologist teaching at SZABIST Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi, belongs to a village in the NWFP where swara originally was designed to stop decades old blood feuds between two clans.

The root cause for most blood feuds is land, Khan said. To resolve conflicts the jirga, or village council, dictates sending a bride from the assailant's family to the aggrieved to put an end to all further killings.

Sometimes girls just a few months old are given as 'blood money' and married once they reach adulthood. At times when there are no women in the family, girls are purchased from another family.

"It's like proclaiming a death sentence," Khan told IPS. "A swara may be alive but her spirit has long been snuffed out. She is a constant reminder (to the in-laws) of the death of their loved one...The physical abuse may not always be there, but it's the psychological scars that she has to live with and which never seem to heal."

Minallah has been studying the custom since 2002. She produced a documentary film, 'A Bridge Over Troubled Waters' in 2003. In a new research project, 'Swara - The Human Shield', Minallah writes: "The hatred towards her does not end. At times even her children face verbal abuse and are taunted."

Minallah continued, "Contrary to the belief that a swara marriage is a form of lasting peace that binds two families together through a marriage alliance, rarely is it so." She, like Bibi, believes the number of women who have died in mysterious circumstances has risen in recent years.

While there are no statistics indicating how many girls are given in swara annually, the number, Minallah believes, is significant. During her research she met 60 swara women in the districts of Mardan and Swabi alone. Around 20 were women who had been swara for many years, but the rest were given away in 2006.

In 2005, the HRCP recorded at least 1,242 cases of violent crime against women in the first eight months of the year. According to the Karachi-based Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, 31,000 crimes against women had been reported in the last five years throughout Pakistan. The group does not separate swara crimes from its statistics.

IPS reported earlier this year how some voluntary groups are holding regular workshops and informal meetings to raise awareness about this brutal custom, which is as difficult to uproot as honour killings. In the case of swara, if the woman complains, her father could be arrested. This stops the woman from speaking up. These organisations also provide free legal aid to victims.

To end swara, the country must first wipe out the prevalence of the jirga system. The recent rise of the jirga's power denotes a failure on the part of Pakistan's weak judicial system, which is marred by a virtually non-existent investigative capacity on the part of police and lack of sensitisation of lower-level judges.

It is imperative, Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch said, that "the government authorities ensure that village panchayats, tribal jirgas and other customary councils are abolished and local influentials act in accordance with the law and do not usurp the proper judicial role of the civil courts."

But, Hasan added in his conversation with IPS, "These informal forums of justice can only be effectively eliminated if the judicial system is truly effective."

So far, in Pakistan, it is not.

by Zofeen T. Ebrahim
Inter Press Service, October 20, 2006