KARACHI, Pakistan — As Farida Afridi, 25, walked to work from her house in Peshawar, two men on motorcycles stopped her, drew their guns and opened fire. She was hit five times in her chest and head.
That was July. Today, police have no suspects. Afridi's family has given up hope that authorities will make any arrests. Her father says her death came as no surprise.
“We all warned her about this many, many times,” he said.
Afridi started a nonprofit that organized seminars on female empowerment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’s rural northwest region. Her work caught the attention of militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which operate in the region, often freely.
These groups repeatedly warned her to stop. They foisted numerous death threats.
Afridi, after all, believed that women could play an active role against militants and their violent ideology by helping their sons pick a better future for themselves.
For many women’s rights advocates in Pakistan, however, their anger lies more with their government than with the militants.
Pakistan’s government rarely protects women like Afridi, who worked in a region where tribal law is the rule of the land. It is an area, Afridi’s father said, where Pakistanis have no constitutional, democratic or human rights.
Prominent activists in Pakistan argue that activists aren’t any safer in other regions. Pakistani authorities are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to protect women advocating for human rights, they say, and often ignore complaints or dismiss statements made to police.
“The government cannot be relied upon to help human rights activists,” said Asma Jahangir, a prominent Pakistani lawyer, and the former chair of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan.
Authorities appear afraid to challenge the status quo. Politicians who have openly spoken out about human rights violations are often threatened themselves. Fear of assassination or of losing political support prevents most from supporting laws that would prosecute militants.
Jahangir said while the threat to all human rights workers across the country remains high, it is especially dangerous for women, who are often targeted simply because of their gender.
The issue made international headlines in October when the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who very publicly fought for women’s rights in Pakistan, in the head and neck. She survived after being transferred to a hospital in Britain.
Jahangir said that a weak constitution, coupled with a weak government incapable of enforcing the few rights that are enshrined within it, means little is ever done to protect girls like Malala.
Jahangir also fears for her safety. She publicly announced her suspicions that a plot to assassinate her was in the making. But she refused to leave the country.
“My ancestors are buried here,” she said. “The protection of my life is the responsibility of the state.”
After UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon voiced concern for Jahangir’s safety, the government provided her with a security detail. But women’s rights workers across the country say her case was an exception.
Samar Minallah, another women’s rights activist who has been threatened, said this climate of impunity creates a fear among civil society to speak up, compounding the problem.
In 2009, Minallah obtained a video of the Taliban flogging a girl in the Swat Valley. Horrified that the Taliban was distributing the video as a warning, Minallah released it to the public.
The response was immediate. Pakistanis took to the streets to protest. Minallah began receiving death threats over the phone and via text message from individuals who believed the video had been fabricated. She was forced into hiding.
“I don’t regret that I chose to release the video, or that I chose to speak out against the Taliban,” Minallah said. “However, in Pakistan there is no system of security for human rights defenders, and they often become lone voices.”
Minallah said this lack of solidarity among citizens and activists further debilitates a women’s rights movement already under assault from all sides. As a result, the movement is shrinking. Human rights workers say fewer and fewer women are working in the field.
“Why can't we all connectedly speak up about these issues? Why did it have to be just one girl, who we now deem as ‘our hero’ to speak up against what was happening?” Minallah said, referring to Malala.