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Off the rack: Protecting women

September 27, 2009

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2009 adopted by the National Assembly in August won plaudits from women and human rights activists alike. 'Landmark', 'milestone', 'victory for civil society' and other such laudatory terms were lavished on it. Having been adopted unanimously, which is creditable given that it was a private member bill, the bill was a positive step in a society where women suffer the most violence. In fact violence from spouses is very often justified by conservative and orthodox elements as sanctioned by Islam.

Hence the euphoria. The sole voice of dissent came from the Council of Islamic Ideology which termed the legislation “ambiguous and containing few reforms”. It also criticised the draft on the ground that it would in its present form “fan unending family feuds and push divorce rates up”. Many saw this as a perverted form of reasoning and the National Commission on the Status of Women's spirited response refuting the CII's arguments is most welcome. One hopes that the Ideology Council will appreciate what the NCSW has to say. The Senate should not be deterred by the religious scholars' objections which are not very convincing. The Senate has yet to adopt the bill which will then become law after it is signed by the president.

But what must be understood is that the new law when it does come into force will be no more than a political statement by a section of society on how it wants its women to be treated. Those who believe that the situation will change in any way will be disappointed. Theore-tically the law goes much further than any law enacted on a women's issue. But that is not enough.

Until now the only violence recognised as such was physical violence that caused grievous injury. The law now recognises other excesses which were previously not given much importance. After all, wrongful confinement, assault, mischief against the property of the victim, including causing economic loss or damage, criminal intimidation, economic abuse, emotional, psychological and verbal abuse, entry into the victim's place of residence, without her consent, harassment, sexual abuse, stalking, any other controlling or abusive behaviour towards the victim, and economic abuse are equally detrimental for the sense of security of women. Each of these has been comprehensively explained and is considered to be a crime that is punishable.

But one wonders if anything will really change in the near future for the women of Pakistan by criminalising domestic violence and bringing it into the public domain, as its objective is described by the author of the bill. It is difficult to believe that by a stroke of the pen women will cease to be abused and violated.

 As it is, many laws are adopted in this country only to be flouted with impunity. Sometimes they go by default because for whom the laws are framed do not have the capacity to benefit from them. Take the present piece of legislation. It can only be conjectured how many women, who have internalised the violence they have suffered and are conditioned to believe that they are the guilty party who invited this punishment on themselves for a wrong they had committed, will actually file a complaint. There are cultural and social factors such as family honour that silence them and make it difficult for them to confront a man.

Then there are practical considerations that will shape her life in the post protection order years. She may be compelled to move to a shelter for her own safety. How many shelters do we have? She can't stay there indefinitely.

What if the man files a complaint under section 25 which provides for penalty for making a false complaint? We know how our legal and police system works. The aggrieved party would have the Damocles sword always dangling above her head.

There is a feeling that the bill amounts to be an attempted short-cut to safety for women. With the support structures and the socio-cultural environment not ready for it, women may not benefit from this law. While the law making process is under way it would be a good move if a campaign is mounted at the social level to create awareness about women's rights and against violence of any kind. A change in the mindset will achieve more for women than legal measures that rely on deterrence by threatening penalties and sanctions for excesses and violence once they have been committed.