Illustration by Leea Contractor

The menace of emotional abuse and why a domestic violence bill is the need of the hour

Here's hoping this bill becomes law soon and with all its protective clauses against the various kinds of abuses intact.
Published August 25, 2021

With the status of the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 currently in limbo, vulnerable members of society remain at risk of myriad kinds of abuses — physical, economic, emotional and sexual. Out of all these, the abuse that has largely remained unaddressed in the criminal justice system is emotional abuse. Therefore, if this bill becomes law, victims of emotional and psychological abuse will finally be able to seek the justice that they have largely been denied.

What is emotional abuse, people ask. Emotional abuse refers to any non-physical behaviour that aims to "control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person through the use of degradation, humiliation, or fear". Behaviours that can be categorised as emotionally abusive range from verbal abuse (belittling, berating, constant criticism) to more subtle tactics, such as "manipulation, intimidation and refusal to be pleased".

Additionally, in the local context, it also includes insulting, ridiculing, humiliation, name-calling, and ridicule, especially with regard to a woman not having a child or not giving birth to a male child; as well as repeated verbal threats and emotional cues to cause physical harm or pain. In reality, emotional abuse forms the most common type of all kinds of ‘domestic violence’.

The term ‘emotional abuse’ has also been subject to judicial interpretation. In the case titled Adnan Zar Versus Mst. Khadeeja Khanum and 2 others, where the petitioner prayed that the court dismiss a family court's order under which his marriage was ruled as dissolved on the basis of "cruelty" and asked through a writ petition that the union be deemed dissolved through Khula instead.

The court heard the petition and held that “cruelty is not limited to physical injury". It ruled that the Family Court had rightly dissolved the marriage on the basis of cruelty and dismissed the writ petition as "misconceived".

Thankfully, the problem of emotional abuse has been addressed not only in the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021, but has also been covered in some provincial laws tackling domestic violence. For example, the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016 has made all crimes committed against women an offence. These crimes include economic abuse, domestic violence, stalking, cybercrime, sexual violence, and psychological abuse.

The purpose of the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016 has been to provide protection to women from all forms of Violence Against Women Crimes. The said legislation provides both civil as well as criminal remedies to women, such as protection orders, monetary orders, and residence orders.

Why Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 is the need of the hour

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 is a phenomenal piece of legislation and if passed and promulgated will provide a penal sanction for any offence that an aggrieved person goes through, such as a child or an intimate partner in a domestic relationship.

Through this bill, a legal and institutional framework had been proposed to ensure that victims are provided legal relief and protection and perpetrators punished.

The bill proposes protection committees that will be formed within three months from the promulgation of the law.

These committees will be responsible for implementing the law, for counselling, for providing information to aggrieved persons and to members of the public.

Under this law, magistrates will also be able to pass interim orders to protect victims, such as orders for stopping somebody from entering certain premises, order for compensation which can be determined on the basis of the loss incurred or the harm caused.

Not only does this bill criminalise domestic violence in its physical forms, it also goes after the even more common forms of domestic violence such as “emotional, psychological and verbal abuse” which has largely remained unaddressed in the country’s criminal justice system.

The bill refers to the concept of emotional abuse and addresses its various forms with the aim of protecting people against patterns of “degrading or humiliating conduct".

It clearly addresses issues such as "repeated exhibition of obsessive possessiveness or jealousy" leading to "repeated invasion of the victim’s privacy, liberty, integrity and security", "threats to cause physical pain to a spouse or other members of the shared household", "threats of divorce or second marriage", "bringing false allegation upon the character of a female member or any member of the shared household", "compelling the wife to cohabit with anybody other than the husband" and "insults or ridicule directed at the aggrieved person".

All in all, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 is an important piece of legislation, which if passed and promulgated will be a milestone when it comes to the state offering robust protection to vulnerable members of society.

The bill was earlier passed by the National Assembly on April 19, 2021, and then referred to the Senate, which passed it on June 21. After its passage by the Senate, as certain minor changes were made in it, the bill was again referred to the National Assembly.

It was then that Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan in a letter to National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, sought a review of the bill by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). The letter had stated that concerns had been raised "regarding various definitions and other contents of the bill."

While the CII is a constitutional body empowered under Article 230 of the Constitution to advise a House, a provincial assembly, the president or a governor on any question referred to it, it does not comprise of representatives directly elected by the public and its advice is not legally binding.

Furthermore, the CII's position in this respect is not hidden from anyone. In 2016, the council had proposed a bill to allow a husband to "lightly" beat his wife "if needed". This suggestion had come under fire by human rights activists at the time.

Referring the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 to the CII increases the chances of jeopardising this otherwise excellent piece of legislation. If passed in its current form, the bill could prove to be a turning point and a stepping stone in Pakistan's history and all steps should be taken to ensure that the bill becomes law and affords protection to our society's vulnerable members as they rightly deserve.

Drafted by Minister for Human Rights, Dr Shireen Mazari, the statement of objects and reasons of this bill states that all Pakistani citizens are equal before the law and that the constitution prohibits any discrimination on the basis of sex. Here's hoping this bill becomes law soon and with all its protective clauses against the various kinds of abuses intact.

Illustration by Leea Contractor