Between intent and reality

Published March 16, 2016
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IN the last days of February, the government of Punjab unanimously passed the Protection of Women against Violence Bill. Since its passage (and even before), it was, expectedly for patriarchal Pakistan, mired in controversy.

Prior to it being passed, committee meetings in which amendments were discussed were sealed. Following its passage, the usual suspects have raised objections regarding its provisions, the gist of which is simply that the state’s intent to provide protection to the country’s women goes against the divinely endowed rights of the country’s men. Civil society and women’s organisations have praised the legislation as progress, noting as is necessary that vast distances must still be travelled before Pakistan, its public and its private spaces are safe for half of its population.

One provision that has not received much discussion is the time limit given to government authorities to enact and enforce the “protective systems” that the act seeks to establish. According to Section 29(2) of the legislation, the government has 120 days to create rules that will provide, for instance, for “a monitoring and evaluation mechanism for the protection system” proposed by the law, figure out rules for the toll-free number, the women’s organisations and volunteer lists that are crucial to the act’s enforcement mechanisms, maintenance and disposal of land, the regulations, etc, for the management of protection shelters as well as the details of the psychological, medical and legal assistance that the law seeks to make available to the province’s women.

As even a cursory perusal of the ambitious 120-day stipulations of goals reveals, this is a tall order; but it should not — rather, must not — be a prohibitive one. The establishment of a regulatory framework for the law’s enforcement and protective mechanisms with some urgency is crucial to their success.


The new Punjab law recognises the family is not a private matter untouchable by legislation.


Unlike the long, dusty piles of legislative measures that have been passed with the intent of protecting women, the drafters of this law have taken special care to focus not merely on actual protective measures that would be available to female complainants. As several articles on the subject have pointed out in the weeks since it was passed, bringing domestic violence offences under civil law (domestic violence is already a crime in Pakistan) necessitates lower burdens of proof.

Similarly, focusing on the needs of women in the immediacy of the crisis itself (where to go, what to do, how to become safe) suggests a new awareness of the urgency of violence within the home and the necessity of women to get rapid protection from the men causing it.

As leading women’s rights activists have pointed out, it also reveals a recognition of the fact that the family, and what happens within it, is not a private matter untouchable by legislation.

But laws are only useful if they are made to work fast; in this case, one hopes that the government of Punjab, which has approximately 100 days left to reach the goals it has set for itself, has set in motion the wheels of developing these regulations. Since the act relies crucially on the oversight of female volunteers who as part of the women’s protection committees will ensure the law’s implementation at the district level, it would be useful to know how interested women could volunteer for such positions.

While many women’s organisations have been involved formally or informally in lobbying support for the legislation, it is unclear which ones are helping develop the district-level lists of volunteers for the protection committees that must be formed.

A second question that stands in the way of the act’s implementation is of resources. The fact that the law creates implementation mechanisms such as the core group of district women’s protection officers is a positive development. In past efforts at legislation, there has been little recognition of the fact that without implementation and involvement at the grass-roots level, the moral change required to curb violence against women cannot happen.

In setting up the female-staffed district-level oversight committees, this act is attempting to zero in on exactly that problem, to give communities and the women who live in them a stake in their own protection. All good intentions and stipulations, however, require resources to live up to them.

At this point, it is unclear what sort of budgetary disbursement or spending limit is attached and how those stipulations of the legislation that require funding (legal, psychological counselling, shelters, officers) will be funded. It is crucial that this be made clear within the 120-day limit stated. The best law is useless if no resources are made immediately available to ensure its implementation. If passing the budgetary disbursement will come in a separate vote, one hopes that it too would be approved unanimously by the Punjab legislature.

If one considers the many days, months and years that Pakistani women have been awaiting a time when their government, their lawmakers and their society would consider them worthy of protection, their abusers requiring punishment, then 120 days seems an inordinately short time.

In passing the law, the Punjab government has taken a first step towards amending this condition, understanding that the private realm can be one rife with dangers for the country’s women. It is hoped that the government will rise to the challenge it has set itself by ensuring that the regulatory frameworks for the legislation’s protection systems are both developed and funded.

Moreover, a public education campaign is required to apprise women of their rights and to recruit volunteers for the district-level committees that are the building blocks of the protection system envisaged by the act. Women often wonder what they can do to help other women; this new legislation provides a potential answer.

If significant numbers of Punjab’s women volunteer to serve on the protection committees, they have a chance at making a dent in the societal norms that have too long held that it’s both okay and acceptable to abuse women.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2016

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