It’s one year since 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban during a period that was especially deadly for the human rights of women and minority communities in Pakistan
In her struggle for girls to have access to education in Swat Valley, Malala survived but countless others in the country have not as extremist violence claims ever more lives.
In cities across the country, young girls can generally enjoy their constitutional right to education. But the situation in the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley is very different.
US Drone strikes as part of the ‘war on terror’ dominate public discourse in Pakistan and abroad: according to a UN special rapporteur, almost 2,200 people have been killed by the strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Some 400 of them were civilians. These numbers contradict claims made by the US government that drone operations minimize civilian casualties.
However, the large number of victims of domestic terrorist-related violence within the country is rarely discussed. In the past 10 years, almost 50,000 people have been killed by militant groups. The year 2012 saw the highest number of terrorist-related deaths in the history of the country. Almost 6,000 people lost their lives. This year’s death toll is not far behind.
In a burst of sectarian violence in 2013, the Shia Hazara community became the target of Taliban militants (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other Sunni militant groups in the country.
Attacks against this community have claimed the lives of hundreds in recent years in what is being called a ‘Shia genocide’. Christian minorities have also been in the firing line. In September, a bomb attack on a church in Peshawar killed at least 80.
As attacks against civilians continue, the Pakistani government is busy negotiating with the Taliban, having already agreed to release from prison key members of the militant organization. How the government will protect the rights of its most vulnerable communities will depend on the outcome of these talks.
It’s not a new problem. Throughout Pakistan’s history, human rights have been put in a precarious position as Pakistan’s military and civil bureaucracy have given in to the demands of the religious Right.
The Cold War defined the rise of religious conservatism and intolerance in Pakistan, when American ally, Saudi Arabia, began to support Jamat-e-Islami and the country’s military establishment. This was instrumental in fuelling an anti-communist and anti-secularist sentiment within the country, all of which was neatly aligned with US foreign policy interests in the region.
In Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s negotiations with the Taliban, political gains for the militant group will affect a wide array of already diminishing human rights in the country.
Pakistan is at a crucial juncture in its history and Malala’s activism for girls’ education sheds light on a situation, where, as in Afghanistan, even the most basic universal human rights are slipping out of the grasp of its people.
Sana Hashmi is a writer based in Toronto, Canada.
For more on Pakistan, see issue 445, New Internationalist’s special issue on the country.