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Religion of 'peace': More than 450 Muslim women killed in Pakistan during 2002 in name of 'honor' | ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- More than 450 women were killed in Pakistan during 2002 in the name of family honor, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said Tuesday.

In its annual report on human rights in Pakistan, the commission also reported that despite parliamentary elections, "democracy and democratic practices were harshly curbed."

"Honor killings seemed to be spreading to areas where they had not previously been known. The number of such killings increased, with reports suggesting those responsible for them frequently escaped punishment," the report said.

The term "honor killing" refers to the practice of killing women, often by male relatives, for having sexual relations before marriage.

Such killings are usually reported from the country's tribal areas where tribal vendetta and family disputes also often lead to bloodshed.

But the commission reported that during 2002 "honor killings" were also reported from non-tribal areas because of demographic change as many tribesmen are now settling in the cities.

The report, however, praised the government's decision to allocate 33 percent of seats in the local bodies to women, saying that this has "brought more women than ever before" into politics. "However, it was uncertain how far they would succeed in highlighting problems faced by women," it added.

Another major problem faced by Pakistani women, the report said, was harassment at places of work. In Pakistan, women were only 6 percent of the total labor force while only 8 percent of women workers held administrative or managerial posts.

The mortality rate for mothers was found to be higher than had previously been estimated, the report said. Quoting independent studies, the commission said that the mortality rate for mothers soared to 700 per 100,000 live births in some parts of the country. The official maternal mortality rate at 340 for every 100,000 live births was also amongst the highest in the world.

Child marriages, sometimes linked to acute poverty, seemed to be on the rise.

Cases of mutilation of women and burning of their faces and bodies with acid also have increased. Women are often mutilated by their in-laws following family disputes. In some areas, men also throw acid on women when their marriage proposals are turned down.

The human rights commission urged the government to build more safe houses for sheltering women subjected to cruelty by their male relatives, particularly husbands. "It is one of the most urgent requirements for many women," the report said.

Pakistan has had a vibrant and free press since 1985 but the commission reported that during 2002, the government often used indirect pressure to force newspapers to publish its stories.

Some journalists and newspaper offices were attacked by militant religious and ethnic organizations and criminal mafias for publishing stories that criticized them.

Authorities cancelled the declarations of several publications.

The daily 'The Frontier Post' in Peshawar was closed down for most of the year after a letter seen as blasphemous was published, apparently by accident. Activists of extremist groups burned down the press of the publication while authorities failed to prevent this.

Political parties faced severe bars on assembly through the year and mass arrests were frequently used as a means to prevent gatherings.

Political activists in the southern Sindh province faced repeated violence, and at least two protesters were killed as police attempted to break up a rally.

Other groups in society, including teachers, religious activists and people attempting to highlight civic issues were also not permitted to assemble.

Traditional May Day rallies in Lahore and Karachi were broken up.

In the Northwest Frontier Province, relief agencies with links to the West faced an increasingly violent campaign spearheaded by extremist groups, the report said. Two bombs exploded outside the offices of a relief agency in July.

Schools for girls opened by these agencies were in some cases forcibly shut down.

An alliance of six religious parties called MMA emerged as the strongest political force in this province in the Oct. 10 parliamentary elections and now controls the provincial government.

The group opposes cultural and political links to the West and wants to turn Pakistan into a religious state.

Trade unions are still banned throughout Pakistan.

"Democracy and democratic practices were harshly curbed. Political leaders and activists were arrested as a means to prevent them from organizing or addressing public meetings," the report said.

"Thousands of political workers were taken into custody during the year."

Political parties alleged that attempts had been made to interfere with their work or to influence the outcome of local bodies' polls.

Women were prevented from casting votes in at least 20 districts during local bodies' polls.

"Harassment and custodial mistreatment of political detainees were also reported," the commission said.

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© 2002, UPI