Pakistan: Women "routine" victims of domestic violence, but Domestic Violence Bill remains delayed Print E-mail
 Pakistan ~~ Monday, December 08, 2008, Zil-Hajj 09, 1429 A.H

No relief for abused women

By Alefia T. Hussain

SOME progressive and forward-looking minds in the country are waiting to see the government take a giant step forward and pass the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2008 pending since August this year. Why the delay? Is the government afraid it will invite howls of protest from anti-women elements both in and out of parliament? Human rights activists back the legislation and maintain that it will provide relief and protection to the women and others in the household from domestic violence.

Crucially, the bill is not women-specific; it extends protection to children and other vulnerable persons against domestic violence. It falls in line with the constitutional guarantees and international commitments that Pakistan is bound by to ensure a safe domestic environment. When the bill is passed, domestic violence becomes part of Schedule I of the Family Courts Act, 1964.

The makers of the bill have broadened the definition of domestic violence: it does not only pertain to physical and emotional abuse committed by the accused but also sexual, verbal and economic abuse. Causing hurt, wrongful confinement, criminal force, assault, mischief, criminal intimidation and attempt are also considered crimes.

Under the proposed bill, harassing a member of the household with threats, unwelcome telephone calls and letters is punishable. Also, stalking and abetting are punishable crimes. Interestingly, these acts of violence can be brought to notice by the victim or any person connected to the victim. Hospitals and private clinics can also report such acts to the police. Subsequently an accused will be imprisoned or ordered to pay up to Rs10,000 in compensation for abusing the victim and Rs5,000 for harassing and stalking.

Work on the domestic violence bill was initiated in December 2006 when the National Assembly Standing Committee on Women Development constituted a subcommittee to examine the bills proposed by Mehnaz Rafi and Sherry Rehman (as private members’ bills). The Ministry of Women Development and the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights decided to club together the two bills. Though it was approved by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Women Development in April 2007, it lapsed as the assembly’s five-year term completed in December 2007.

With the swearing in of the new PPP government, civil society took the initiative to revive debate on the bill. On Aug 7, 2008 eminent legal and judicial personalities such as Justice (retd) Nasira Iqbal, Justice (retd) Majida Razvi and Justice (retd) Shaiq Usmani, and women rights organisations such as Shirkat Gah and others were brought together by Aurat Foundation to critique and review the bill. This national-level consultation was followed by four regional meetings. At the end of the series of consultations, recommendations were incorporated in the original draft and were sent to the Ministry of Women Development in August 2008. Copies were also shared with the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and Gender Action Reform Programme (GRAP).

So what’s stopping the government from doing the needful? Till when will it keep the record on women-related brutalities complicated? When will it develop new laws to curb violence against women?

Naheed Syed of the Aurat Foundation says no matter how publicly domestic violence is committed, it is still an unreported matter in our society. Also she holds the male-dominated perspective among our parliamentarians as one of the reasons behind the non-serious attitude towards the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2008. Mahnaz Rafi agrees, in fact, she does not mince words in blaming the anti-women “waderas and tribal lords sitting in the assemblies” for the delay.

The appointment of two anti-women ministers ­ Sardar Israrullah Zehri and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani ­ proves Rafi’s point. In the past few weeks the PPP government has drawn sufficient flak from civil society for such cabinet appointments. Civil society has lambasted Zehri for defending a barbaric incident where at least two women were allegedly buried alive in his province, Balochistan, saying that such killings were part of the tribal culture. It has heaped criticism on Bijarani for allegedly heading a jirga in 2006 that decided to give five minor girls in compensation to settle a feud between two rival tribes. Both were subjected to severe criticism ­ so much so that if Zehri and Bijarani had been the kind of people to be discouraged by this kind of verbal onslaught they would have given up right then. But they didn’t.

Attitudes towards women especially among educated urbanites have changed to some extent in the past few years. Women’s representation in the legislative assemblies has increased substantially. Yet much of the country is conservative ­ and hence gender-based crimes remain unaddressed. Incest, burning alive, throwing acid, trafficking, karo-kari, vani, etc. is rampant. In the midst of such serious crimes, routine acts of domestic violence go ignored. According to rough estimates 80 per cent of women in Pakistan are subjected to domestic violence.

The PPP’s election manifesto commits the party to achieving gender equality and pledges to eliminate discriminatory laws and policies. The party pledged a 20 per cent job quota for women in public services and effective legislation to enable legal ownership of assets and resources to facilitate women’s financial independence. This, coupled with the active participation of Sherry Rehman, Shazia Marri, Sassui Palejo and others, who seemed to be guided by the legacy of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, made the party appear more women-friendly than others in the Feb 2008 contest.

Now, 10 months into the parliamentary term and the Ministry of Women Development is missing a minister. The portfolio has yet to be assigned. So much for addressing women-related issues.