A parody of protection
BY R A F I A Z A K A R I A | 6/3/2015

THE draft of the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Bill (2015) was referred to a standing committee last week. On the face of it, and given Pakistan`s dismal record regarding the treatment of women (a 2011 report ranks it the third most dangerous place for women in the world), the development seems a welcome one.

Based on the title of the bill, one would guess that some action is about to be taken on the issue, at least in Punjab. That guess, however, would be wrong. As numerous women`s rights activists have pointed out in the past week, it fails to criminalise violence against women, even in a domestic setting; it does not bother to define physical, psychological, emotional or economic violence; and it does not even mention sexual violence. In this most primary sense, then, this bill that pretends to promise protection is a failure.

As Fareeda Shaheed, the director of Shirkat Gah, Women`s Resource Centre, put it, `We are shocked that the government disregarded recommendations from civil society. Violence against women and girls needs to be made a criminal offence`. Lawyer Hina Jilani said that the bill in its current form is not legislation against domestic violence at all but rather only a procedural document that lays out how battered women should be provided services; it gives them no way to actually get justice for having been battered.

Similar reservations have been expressed by the National Commission on the Status of Women, whose president, Khawar Mumtaz, said that the bill, while laying out relief services for victims of violence, falls short of actually providing redress for the act of being victimised by violence.

In simple terms, then, once women in Punjab have been beaten up, they may, if the bill passes and is actually implemented, have a place to go. The current form of the bill says it will establish centres where these women can go. The first will be set up in Multan and in addition to residential services for victims of violence, it will also provide services for the `investigation and prosecution` of violent crimes against women.

This last provision is ironic since tools for the investigation and prosecution of such crimes would only be useful if violence against women was actually considered a crime. This issue, however, seems not to have occurred to those drafting or debating the bill. One can only hope that it crosses the mind of legislators in the Punjab Assembly before they actually vote on the bill.

It may be too lofty a hope, though. In the past, measures to criminalise violence against women have faced opposition from religious parties that insist that such violence is the prerogative of male guardians of women. Relying on religious texts whose interpretation has been debated by Muslim feminist scholars, this argument has left women in Pakistan largely powerless against their abusers.

Obviously, the drafters of the bill do not care to make any progress in this regard; if it looks and sounds like a bill that mandates protection, they seem to have decided, it doesn`t matter that it is a bill that does not actually provide any protection at all.

Even the provisions that the draft of this proposed law does make seem ill thought-out and unconcerned with the data on existing conditions. For instance, the bill fails to note that there are Darul Aman shelters in almost all of Punjab`s 35 districts but the majority of them are overcrowded and neglected.

A report from six years ago (and the situation has certainly worsened since then) noted that a facility that was built to accommodate 35 women was in2009 housing 80 women. In addition, since most women living in Darul Aman shelters in the country are there owing to court orders, the pervasive atmosphere seems to be one of a prison facility rather than a place where women are being rehabilitated.

The parody of protection that the Punjab Assembly seems to be putting forward by drafting a bill that fails to address the core issues that allow violent acts to be committed against women is a great example of exactly how and why misogyny persists in Pakistan. Once again, lawmakers who are proud to talk about the need for women`s welfare and the importance of their uplift have shown their cowardice and hypocrisy.

Based on existing Pakistani law, male guardians of women have the power to compel them to marry, render void marriages they enter into themselves, and by virtue of the ongoing failure to criminalise domestic violence, beat them up too.

Add this to the reality that the country is rapidly urbanising, losing traditional and communal means of dispute resolution and conflict management and you have a situation where women are likely to face far more increased rates of abuse than in the past.

As migration from rural to urban areas continues, the proximity to families that previously looked in and served as minimal deterrence against abuse can no longer be counted on.

Without a law that accomplishes this purpose, a woman`s safety is simply the whim of her male guardian. In the best case scenario, and if this bill is actually passed, Pakistani women in Punjab can relish the thought that after they are beaten up, they can go to an overcrowded and neglected shelter provided by a government that doesn`t think violence against them is a crime at all.

Pakistani commentators spend much time scratching their heads as to why the rest of the world derides the country as a woman-hating haven. In the sham that is the Punjab Assembly`s effort at providing `protection` to women, they can find an answer.•
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn