Pro-women legislation

Published February 5, 2012

A THOMAS Reuters Foundation poll of gender specialists reported that Afghanistan in 2011 was the world’s most dangerous country in which to be a woman, due to poverty, poor healthcare and harmful cultural practices.

Pakistan ranked third where women face unprecedented levels of violence and gender discrimination. This is where according to Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission 90 per cent of women are victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives.

This is where historically women face gender crimes such as acid attacks, honour killings, child marriages, rape and domestic violence despite efforts by governments to grant more rights by amending certain laws.

Routine lethargy is shown by political decision-makers. Many fail to condemn discriminatory practices and certain anti-women laws on public platforms, while others defend brutal tribal customs — burying young women alive or murdering them is acceptable punishment for disobedience and free will.

This has erased confidence in the judicial and investigative mechanism. Attempts to amend laws relating to rape prosecution, and implement anti-harassment laws and legislation for the prevention of violent practices against women has been overshadowed by the fact that the judiciary and police at times have not assisted, and have in fact exacerbated, the issue by failing to categorise violence as a crime and so kept women away from reporting gender brutality.

Two laws to curb sexual harassment were passed in 2010: the first was the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2010 with amendments in Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code relating to sexual harassment at the workplace. The offence is punishable with imprisonment up to three years or a maximum fine of Rs500 or both. Backed by the then information minister Sherry Rehman and supported by AASHA (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace) that campaigns for workplace rights, the second law, the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, has legal safety nets protecting working women and making it mandatory to appoint ombudspersons at all levels.

AASHA’s pilot project to curtail workplace sexual harassment even before the act was passed last year stressed the importance of pro-women practices in workplaces through a system of monitoring and accountability — women should be able to report an incident without fear of reprisal to inquiry committees within organisations. Dr Fouzia Saeed at AASHA who helped draft the anti-sexual harassment policy at the time named the Code of Conduct for Gender Justice (the government did not accept the word ‘sexual harassment’) explains the need to understand that gender crimes should not be silently accepted and should be curbed effectively.

Last year, when women employees of PIA complained of sexual harassment and approached the Lahore High Court for justice, their allegations had effectively been ignored by PIA’s internal committee. AASHA has also formulated an online database, the sexual harassment watch which allows organisations to exchange information on compliance of the law.

This wave of pro-women legislation could as easily be attributed to the 1999 coming of age of Pakistani women parliamentarians. It hasn’t been easy to ensure women-friendly bills are passed by parliament, is how former PML-Q parliamentarian Marvi Memon puts it. Memon and her colleagues, Shahnaz Sheikh and Anusha Rehman, proposed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2011, which recommends 14 years to a lifetime in prison and a Rs1m fine.

With a disorganised Assembly refusing to prioritise women-related concerns, Memon’s makeshift solution for the immediate implementation of this law suggests that parliamentarians ensure fool-proof investigation into acid crimes reported in their constituencies, offering assistance with prosecutions. In the case of acid victim Maria Shah from Shikarpur, this law has come too late: it doesn’t apply in retrospect so she won’t get justice. Pro-women legislation is not easily passed through parliament.

Women legislators are quick to remind how security issues and the economy take priority.

On Dec 23, 2011, the Senate passed the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill, three years after it was tabled in the Assembly by PML-Q parliamentarian Donya Aziz. It lists three particular offences against women making it unlawful to: deprive a woman of her rightful inheritance through “deceitful or illegal means”; force a woman into marriage to settle a civil or criminal dispute; and “compel or arrange or facilitate” a woman’s ‘marriage’ to the Quran punishable by imprisonment for three to seven years and a Rs500,000 fine.

Implementation will prove challenging because it is aimed at checking the traditional practice of swara and vani prevalent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Whether this will allow for official monitoring of jirga decisions, and legally prosecute wealthy landowning politician-types for marrying their young daughters and sisters to the Quran, a practice prevalent in Sindh, remains to be seen. This bill make the offences non-compoundable: an accused person cannot be pardoned legally even if a compromise takes place between both two parties.

Protecting women against violent practices made unlawful through legislation especially where such actions are seen as part of the traditional fabric may mean a lower rate of conviction. Proponents say the value and impact of these laws decrease when not implemented properly. But these bills simply don’t pay lip service to the increasing demand for justice and regardless of whether or not implementation is successful, their existence alone is indicative of positive social progress.

Although awareness is rising at all levels — at the state level the Senate has just approved the bill to set up a national commission for women — there is need to evolve mind-sets so that society accepts that prohibited practices are intolerable.

The impact of legislation will only change the social fabric when women are empowered through basic education, and education on rights, so they can enforce their own legal rights.

The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.



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