In 2016, the Electronic Crimes Prevention Act was passed and monitoring of the digital landscape in Pakistan officially began. Not that the internet hadn’t been policed or policed before – the YouTube ban, for example, came long before PECA – but PECA quickly became a legal tool that could be misused and abused to silence dissenters. Over the past few years, the FIA has lamented the lack of resources to tackle real cybercrime against women, but has also been proactive in filing complaints and opening investigations against various journalists and political workers active on social media.
Apart from activating such control tools, the Internet in Pakistan has also become a place of toxicity; hate speech is endemic; misinformation is disseminated through organized networks; incitement to violence against marginalized communities increases; and online violence against women is common. However, it won’t be fair to paint an entirely negative picture – progressive rights-based groups have also begun to use the internet more often and more effectively. From closed forums used by activists to stage demonstrations and protests to open Twitter spaces where topics too sensitive for mainstream media are openly discussed, the internet, even in its surveilled and controlled form, is used as an effective instrument to push to change. Such use is not limited to media professionals or human rights groups; individual citizens are also effectively using social media to highlight issues with the legal justice system. For example, families of victims of domestic violence have used social media to lobby for registration and prosecution of cases. Since 2021, many citizens have also taken to court for strategic disputes over internet freedoms, cases that will hopefully help set a more progressive precedent for the internet in Pakistan.
— Sadaf Khan, digital rights activist and co-founder, Media Matters for Democracy
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of Pakistan, it is important to take stock of the fruits of independence for almost 50% of the Pakistani population, that is, women. The status of women and girls has improved on almost all development indicators. Women’s education has shown an upward trajectory, rising from a literacy rate of 12% in 1947 to 49% in 2022; life expectancy has improved to 68 and women’s participation in the labor market has risen from around 11% in 1990 to over 22% today. Unfortunately, these improvements have not prepared women to participate in today’s world characterized by a technological revolution. Our women are not equipped to fully engage in the new categories of jobs and processes due to their low participation in the fields of education and training related to science, technology, engineering and to mathematics. Their enrollment is mainly in the fields of arts, social sciences and medicine due to the societal perception of the “relevance” of these fields for women and their role in society. As a result, while economic realities are pushing more and more women into employment, the lack of qualifications restricts their commitment to non-formal and/or non-technical jobs and, almost always, to manual and repetitive low-paying functions. .
To prepare the women of Pakistan for the world of today and tomorrow, it is imperative that society and the state invest in their scientific and technical education. This will require increased enrollment of women and girls in STEM disciplines, from school to university. New employment and entrepreneurship opportunities are now available through digital platforms that provide flexibility and circumvent the barriers of physical mobility and national commitments. However, adoption is still very low for girls, even in the tech sector where women make up only 14% of the IT workforce. Increasing female participation in STEM degrees can lead to a better transition from education to employment for female university graduates, less than 25% of whom enter the workforce. It will also require tackling the perception of gender roles in Pakistan which has remained entrenched despite the fact that women have to work to support families in large numbers. Above all, we must operationalize the legal equality of women and men, enshrined in the constitution, to enable all its citizens to realize their full potential.
— Fauzia Viqar, Senior Gender Advisor
The 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence should be an occasion for a thorough and serious review as a nation regarding our performance in realizing peoples’ rights, as that was the purpose of Pakistan’s request. We must discern the weaknesses and failures to provide basic rights and basic necessities to large numbers of Pakistanis.
A continued lethargy with respect to the values and principles inherent in the fundamental framework of human rights contributes strongly to the massive disregard for human rights in general and religious freedom in particular. Even though the concepts of inviolable dignity of the human person and equality of human beings are part of our constitution and other documents, we have not discussed them enough, therefore, Pakistan needs a real discourse on these concepts in order to embrace them in letter and spirit. The propaganda and misconception that human rights are a foreign concept will need to be dispelled through nuanced intervention.
Second, our parliamentary practices, our education and justice systems will have to fully recognize and realize the equality of citizens. Third, human rights can only flourish in a democratic regime. Only democratic standards will contribute to building a culture conducive to the exercise of civil liberties, namely freedom of thought and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association for human rights.
Although it sounds like a mammoth task, the distance to this destination can be shortened by revisiting the ideal of a state that we would like to make of Pakistan. Pakistan must prosper away from the deceptions of a security state and a theocratic model. Moving out of fear and the perpetual state of conflict, religious and sectarian intolerance, regional tensions and gender disparity will be necessary to transform Pakistan into a welfare state.
— Peter Jacob, researcher and human rights activist