(New York) – Pakistan’s government should urgently investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent jump in reported “honor” killings in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The government needs to send a message of zero tolerance.

Members of civil society protest against a recent "honor" killing in Islamabad, Pakistan on May 29, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

In Pakistan, murders to protect family or community “honor” have received widespread attention in recent weeks. On June 8, 2016, Zeenat Rafiq, 18, was burned to death in Lahore by her mother for “bringing shame to the family” by marrying a man of her choice. On May 31, family members tortured and burned to death a 19-year-old school teacher in Murree, Punjab province for refusing an arranged marriage proposal. On May 5, the body of Amber, 16, was found inside a vehicle that had been set on fire in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, after a jirga, or traditional assembly of elders, ordered her death for helping her friend marry of her own choice.

“So-called honor killings have been a long-festering problem in Pakistan, and the recent escalating trend makes it clear they won’t go away on their own,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government needs to step up its prosecution of these horrific cases and send a message of zero tolerance.”

Pakistani law allows the family of a murder victim to pardon the perpetrator. This practice is often used in cases of “honor” killings, where the victim and perpetrator frequently belong to the same family, in order to evade prosecution. The 2004 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act made “honor” killings a criminal offense, but the law remains poorly enforced.

In February 2016, a documentary about “honor” killings by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, “A Girl in the River,” won an Academy Award. The film prompted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to speak out publicly on “honor” killings, stating that he would look into the issue and seek reform, yet he has so far taken no action.

In March, Pakistan’s senate passed an anti-honor killing bill, which is now pending National Assembly approval. Prime Minister Sharif should support the bill, which seeks to eliminate the option of murder committed in the name of “honor” to be “forgiven.”

Pakistani law should be protecting women from these vicious acts – not enshrining an escape clause for their killers.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“Pakistani law literally allows killers to get away with murdering the women in their families,” Adams said. “The law should be protecting women from these vicious acts – not enshrining an escape clause for their killers.”

Legislative changes are only a part of the solution. The Pakistani government should ensure that police impartially investigate “honor” killings without bowing to political or other pressure from local and religious leaders. The government should also ensure that safe emergency shelter, protection, and support is available to any woman or girl who may be at risk from her family.

In most reported cases, the harshest punishments on grounds of “honor” come from the jirgas, village councils that have no female representation. There are no credible official figures on “honor” killings because they often go unreported or are passed off as suicide or natural deaths by family members. According to the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 1096 women were killed on the pretext of “honor” in 2015.

In May 2016, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), the highest constitutional religious body in the country, proposed that men should be allowed to “lightly” beat their wives, “if needed,” and prohibited the mixing of genders in schools, hospitals, and offices. The CII is an advisory body whose recommendations are not binding in parliament. The CII’s recommendations came in response to the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2016, which was passed in the Punjab Assembly earlier this year, and is aimed at providing remedy to women facing domestic abuse.

During a June 10 television program, a senator from an Islamist political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), verbally abused and attempted to physically assault Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist, for criticizing the CII.

“Statements from the governmental Council of Islamic Ideology are making an already toxic environment for women in Pakistan worse,” Adams said. “The Pakistani government should act quickly and decisively to ensure that no interpretation of religious or cultural norms prevails over basic rights.”