Footprints: Where the law fails

Updated March 11, 2016


Basra Bibi with her son at the Edhi Home in Lahore. A victim of domestic abuse, her case was the first one filed after the passage of the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, 2016 from the provincial assembly.—Photo by writer
Basra Bibi with her son at the Edhi Home in Lahore. A victim of domestic abuse, her case was the first one filed after the passage of the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, 2016 from the provincial assembly.—Photo by writer

AS Basra Bibi sits in the courtyard of the Edhi Home, tears constantly well up and her eyes are red and swollen — but she is quiet. Pain is evident in her face as she watches her five-year-old son play with a twig.

“The thing that hurt me most is that it was my parents who kicked me out of their house first, and beat me up, even in the police station,” she tells me.

In her sixth year of marriage, Basra finally mustered up the courage to discuss finances with her husband Tayyab. She ended up being abused, verbally and physically. “My parents hate me for going public with my marital problems,” she says. “But I got a little bit of courage after I heard about this new legislation [the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, 2016]. My husband and his mother taunted me, saying the police would not be able to do anything because there was no proof. I was put under such pressure by both sides of the family that I had to withdraw the case.”

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Her first marriage also ended in her asking her husband for divorce. “He too used to beat me,” she says. “I have been told by many people that this is my fate. Maybe it is, because asking the law for help has only left me homeless and without a family.”

Basra now has no support from anyone. Even the presence of her son only makes her more fearful and insecure.

The Edhi Home she is in is right behind the Green Town police station, where she filed the complaint.

“She says he beat her, but medical examinations showed no marks of violence,” says SHO Qaiser Aziz. He smiles bitterly and shakes his head. “Actually there is only little help the police can give. We can help file the case but we cannot help if the complainant withdraws the case. When she maintained that she did not want to return to her in-laws’ or her parents’ houses, we dropped her off at the Edhi Home.”

For Aziz, such domestic fights are not a big deal. “We get seven or eight such cases every day. Most of the women who call the police are also afraid of having their families broken,” he says. “Yes, they are tired of being beaten up but they only want the police to intimidate their husbands. It is unfortunate that in our culture women are not given a chance to choose who they marry.”

He says the main cause of most domestic arguments is poverty. “But now, because of the Women’s Protection Bill, women are becoming more aware and feel more confident in filing cases,” he says.

While the Green Town police station did in fact register an FIR in Basra’s case, it was registered under the penal code. The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, 2016 does not have the power to have an FIR registered under it, says human rights lawyer Hina Jilani.

In a province where the rate of violence against women is recorded as being the highest in the country every year, Jilani is disgusted by the fact that unlike the Sindh and Balochistan bills, the Punjab legislation does not criminalise violence, mainly to avoid conflict with the extreme right-wing vote bank. “If they want to provide protection to women, I say they should go all the way and criminalise it,” she says grimly. “Otherwise, there is no use. The bill heavily relies on institutions and committees being made, but when a woman comes for a complaint is she supposed to wait for all that? There should be tools to help her and the rest of the process can continue.”

In the meantime, are we back to square one? Jilani shrugs rhetorically; the facts are obvious.

Once the law is implemented (which it has not been yet, says Jilani), the victim or survivor will be protected in three main aspects. One, the male perpetrator may be made to keep away from her, while he is kept under vigilance. Two, the woman cannot be thrown out of the house, and three, she may be given monetary benefit.

But because Basra withdrew her case, she could not push on these points.

“There is definitely room for threats when a woman lodges a complaint,” says SHO Aziz. “But contrary to what many critics of the law think, there is still maybe only 0.1 per cent chance of a woman misusing it.”

“I came here thinking the law would help me,” Basra says in anguish. “It’s very disheartening to know that I am so alone. Now, I have the added problems of not having a home and having to look for a job while taking care of my son. Turning back holds something worse in store for me.”

While human rights activists feel the law has several serious loopholes, they are so distressed at the levels of violence against women in the province that they are willing to accept whatever little margin that comes their way.

“I commend the step that has been taken, but it should be reviewed before being implemented,” says Jilani.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2016