Will This Oscar-Winning Film Help Pakistan End Honor Killings & Gender Violence?


You may be familiar with the short ‘A Girl in The River: The price of Forgiveness’ which won best documentary short at this year’s Academy Awards. Canadian-Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy gave a short but powerful acceptance speech claiming that her film, which tells the real life story of a young woman who survived an honor killing in Pakistan, has influenced the Prime Minister who has vowed to crack down on honor killings in the country.

PM Nawaz Sharif was impacted by this film, and two-time Oscar-winning director Sharmeen proudly proclaimed this from her acceptance speech platform. What makes us scratch our heads is the notion that he was completely and utterly unaware of the honor killing epidemic before he came across ‘A Girl In The River’. Which definitely goes to show the immense and important power of art.

It is estimated that up to 1000 honor killings take place in Pakistan each year, and that is only the number that is reported. An honor killing is generally described as the heinous act of a family member determining that it is better for them to kill (usually) their own daughter rather than have her being shame on the family in the eyes of the community. “Shame” can be defined simply as a young woman choosing a man who her parents did not approve of (as in the case of Saba in ‘A Girl In The River’).

Could this film be a cultural turning point simply in its ability to raise consciousness about honor killings, as well as the widespread inequality that women around Pakistan face every day? We’ve seen how the effect of a young public figure such as Malala Yousafzai, who comes from a rural area in Pakistan, has taken the issue of girls education in the developing world and made it an issue that many more people are aware of. Her popularity over the past few years, appearing and speaking at the United Nations, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and being interviewed by celebrities, for example, shows what kind of momentum an issue can have when it gets out into the mainstream.

A good indicator of actual changes happening is to see recent laws and measures that are being implemented elsewhere in society, and from what we can see, there is definitely an increase in the need to eliminate gender violence.

At a recent United Nations event held to discuss how Pakistan can tackle the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (gender equality), Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN Maleeha Lodhi said while the country has come a long way in tackling gender violence, many issues still exist.

“Physical violence has been described as the most shameful of all human rights violations and one of the most intractable to eliminate,” she said.


Secretary for Women’s Development in Punjab, Aman Imam, was also present to speak at the event and pointed out Pakistan’s introduction of recent laws which are starting to enable women to know about their legal and social rights. One of those pieces of legislation is the Women’s Protection Law which criminalizes violence against women.

Hassan Javid at Nation.com.pk points out that this groundbreaking new law for Pakistan “represents an important, if incremental, step forward for the cause of female empowerment in Pakistan, and has tremendous value as a symbolic statement signaling a progressive move away from the status quo.”

Sadly, (and perhaps all too predictably) there are certain political parties and religious groups who are against this bill because they believe it violates family privacy. In other words, some do not see violence against a woman as anything bad or criminal.

“They say that the Women Protection Bill will bring an end to ‘traditional’ family life and increase the divorce rate, but fail to actually explain why this would be a bad thing in a context where physically and psychologically violent relationships do nothing but breed broken homes, battered wives, and damaged children,” writes Hassan Javid.

This is the kind of cultural mindset which needs to be changed in order for progressive laws like this to even be effective in society. Hassan also says there needs to be less religious dominance in politics for measures like the Women’s Protection Law to be seen for how it is going to benefit families in Pakistan.


“This is not about making Pakistan a more ‘secular’ or ‘liberal’ country. It is about providing rights and security to half the population,” he said.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, an organization that has been working for women’s rights since the mid-1990’s and who particularly focus on the rights of rural women, claim it’s not just laws that need to be passed, but the presence of women in the public sector needs to increase.

Marvi Rural Development Organisation (MRDO) held a media event claiming the country cannot progress unless half the population is fully engaged in helping this momentum.

“Parliamentarians, especially female parliamentarians, have done a great job by passing women’s rights bills in parliament, which, if implemented in letter and spirit, will create a congenial environment for women,” said MRDO CEO Gulam Sughra Solangi.


Their focus on the legal empowerment of the poor is done through seminars, workshops, community and school visits. The org states that female parliamentarians have a a positive record of tackling human rights issues which is why they argue for greater representation.

One of the suggestions at the event was to make it mandatory for at least one female officer to work at every police station, so that women in the community who want to report a crime or violence have the confidence in knowing they can talk to another woman. This particular suggestion is important for such a conservative society.

An increase in legal aid services would also ensure gender violence and crimes against women don’t continue to stay hidden and unreported.

This movement focusing on female empowerment through the law is encouraging to see, and we only hope it will continue. With ‘A Girl In The River’ allowing the Prime Minister to have his eyes opened to the effect of honor killings, we can also see how art and filmmaking can be a very valuable tool in creating cultural change alongside the legislative momentum. You can watch the full documentary on HBO, and view the trailer below:







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