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Pakistan's escalating 'honor killing' problem

Almost 1,000 Pakistani women were murdered last year for allegedly dishonoring their families. A guide to the horrifying trend

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released its annual report on Thursday, and tucked in among the stories of murdered journalists and liberal anti–blasphemy law activists, general intimidation, and overcrowded jails was this horrifying statistic: At least 943 women were murdered in familial "honor killings," an increase from the 791 the year before. And 943 is widely believed to be a significant undercounting, since most honor killings are covered up or not reported. Here's what you should know:

What are honor killings?The murder of women, and occasionally men, for besmirching the perceived honor of a family or clan. Alleged dishonors include real or perceived adultery, premarital sex, refusing a pre-arranged marriage, marrying against the family's wishes, demanding a divorce, being raped, or even getting caught in inheritance or property disputes. Women are sometimes first raped or gang-raped, and the killer is almost always the father, husband, or a brother. 

What about in Pakistan?The HRCP says that in 2011, 595 of the murdered women were accused of "illicit relations" — largely premarital or extramarital sex — and 219 women married without family permission. On top of the killings, about 4,500 other women were victims of domestic violence last year, the group says.

Is this just a Pakistani problem?No. It's an especially egregious problem in Pakistan, but honor killings occur throughout the world, even in the U.S. and Canada. The most famous cases involve Muslim families, and honor killing is typically associated with Muslim countries, but "the practice has nothing to do with Islam," says Palash R. Ghosh in the International Business Times. In fact, it predates Islam, and "is rooted in ancient tribal customs whereby the 'honor' of a family or a whole village is represented by the morality, chastity, and proper behavior of its women."

What is Pakistan doing about it?In theory, the perpetrators of honor killings are supposed to be prosecuted for murder, but in practice, police usually shrug the killings off as a family matter, or take at face value family assertions that the woman committed suicide or died in accidents. Human rights groups applaud Pakistan's legislature for passing laws that strengthen rules against abusing women, but better enforcement and stricter punishment is still needed. Really, activist Sana Saleem tells Britain's The Telegraph, "without the police and the courts reforming, changing their attitude to women, then nothing can change."

Sources: Al Arabiya, International Business Times, Telegraph

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