Tackling domestic violence

Updated 11 Feb 2014


— File photo
— File photo

THE Balochistan Assembly recently passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2014. The legislation appears to generally follow the pattern of the landmark bill passed on the same issue by the Sindh Assembly in March 2013, the only other province to have passed such legislation.

It defines different forms of domestic violence, including physical, sexual and economic abuse, stalking, harassment, etc. as well as verbal and emotional abuse, although the definition of the latter is not as wide-ranging as that in the Sindh legislation. The Balochistan bill expands the ambit of domestic violence to also include violence visited upon domestic servants.

“The main gap I can see in it is that [unlike the Sindh legislation] there are no direct penalties specified for abuses that aren’t covered by the Pakistan Penal Code,” says Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW). “These penalties are to be decided by the protection committees, although the bill does include penalties for breaching the committee’s orders.”

After the 18th Amendment in April 2010, provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) became individually responsible for legislation on devolved subjects, including women’s rights. (Legislation for the ICT is passed by the Senate and the National Assembly. The ICT’s domestic violence bill was only passed by the Senate which means it has not yet become law.)

Legislation on domestic violence is assuming urgency with time. According to a report by Aurat Foundation, the incidence of domestic violence increased by 62 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

Shibboleths about ‘privacy’ and ‘sanctity of chadar aur chardiwari’ by conservative quarters in parliament, along with political quid pro quos, have long kept domestic violence out of the purview of the law even after other forms of violence against women, such as honour killing and forced marriage, have been criminalised.

A sustained campaign by rights activists in cooperation with parliamentarians led to the unanimous passage of a bill on domestic violence by the National Assembly on Aug 4, 2009. However, the bill met with a roadblock in the Senate largely on account of objections by Maulana Sheerani of the JUI-F and lapsed after three months, the time within which it had to be passed by the upper house in order for it to become law.

“If the Kerry-Lugar Bill hadn’t come up, the domestic violence bill would have been passed,” says Anis Haroon, former chairperson of the NCSW. “It was put on the backburner to appease the religious parties.”

That it was the comparatively liberal government of the PPP-ANP which allowed political expediency to derail the bill illustrates how women’s rights can be a convenient bargaining chip. Nevertheless, during the last government, a number of pro-women laws were passed.

At present, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the bill on domestic violence has been referred to a house committee for further deliberation while in Punjab, a draft is being worked upon by a technical committee. Some rights activists perceive that the slow progress is because women’s rights legislation is low priority for the parties currently in power.

“Moreover, women’s rights legislation is usually introduced by women legislators through private member’s bills,” says Ms Haroon. “There tends to be less ownership of such bills than of bills introduced by the government.”

After legislation comes into effect, follow-up also tends to be slow. In Sindh, for instance, the provincial commission that is to implement the province’s domestic violence law has yet to be set up.

Supplementary infrastructure – such as women’s shelters and women’s police stations – that needs to buttress legislation in order to make it effective is inadequate. For example, in Balochistan there is only one functioning women’s shelter in Quetta which, in the words of a provincial legislator, “is more of a criminal concern rather than any shelter. We wouldn’t want any woman to go there; she’ll come out with her reputation in tatters”. The condition of most women’s shelters, if not all, in the country is reportedly not much better.

Nevertheless, the legislation has put in place a framework that can be further built upon. “Mindsets and attitudes may take time to change but the law sets standards and puts in place accountability mechanisms,” says Ms Mumtaz. “The discourse itself is important; it’s essential to start a debate on the issue.”