The Domestic Violence Bill Termed a Good Piece of Legislation

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Womens Feature Service

The domestic violence bill, termed a good piece of legislation by many, was passed in Pakistan’s National Assembly (NA) on August 4, 2009, in a rare show of unanimity by all parties. Although it was dubbed a “historic move” by civil society, the bill unfortunately has died an unsung death, even before it could become a law.

The reasons range from pressures from the religious lobby to civil society organisations admitting to “having been short of activism”, to certain politicians blaming the Law and Parliamentary Affairs Ministry for the lapse. But in this blame game the biggest losers have been the hundreds of innocent victims of domestic violence, who continue to suffer in silence without any hope of justice, at least for now.

According to Article 70 of the Constitution, the government had to get an affirmation to the bill from the Senate within 90 days of it being passed by parliament. But they were unable to achieve this. This means that the process has to start anew with the bill having to be passed again by both houses – Pakistan has a bicameral federal legislature that consists of the Senate (upper house) and the National Assembly (lower house).

But before that can happen, the bill has to be approved by a mediation committee comprising members of both houses. Article 70(3) of the Constitution states: ‘Where a bill is referred to the Mediation Committee under clause (2), the Mediation Committee shall, within ninety days, formulate an agreed Bill which is likely to be passed by both Houses of the Majlis-i-Shoora (Parliament) and place the agreed Bill separately before each House, and if both the Houses pass the Bill, it shall be presented to the President for assent.’

Interestingly, when the bill was moved in the Senate on October 5, 2009, Senator Mohammad Khan Sheerani of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Fazlur-Rehman Group (JUI-F), an Islamist political party, was the only person who raised objections to it. This, despite the fact that the main leadership of his party had favoured the passage of the bill in the NA. “The government could easily have gotten it passed as it has a majority in the Senate,” says Bushra Gohar, a legislator of the Awami National Party. “The excuse that the JUI-F wouldn’t support it doesn’t hold true as the main leadership sitting in the NA passed it,” she says.

However, the mover of the bill, Yasmeen Rehman, from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, is unperturbed that her bill has lapsed. “In hindsight it is better that it lapsed. We do not have a majority in the Senate. Had it been opposed it would have been slain. At least now it is still breathing!” According to Rehman, the mediation committee will work out all the differences. She is hopeful the bill will be revived soon.

However, some parliamentarians argue the bill met its current fate because of the “pressure” built on the government by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body that advises the legislature on whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam. Terming the bill “discriminatory” when it was moved in the NA, the CII had warned that it could give the police an opportunity to violate the “sanctity of home,” and result in an increase in divorce rates.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the government to quickly re-introduce legislation. In a press statement, Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at HRW, has said: “The proposed law has widespread support in Pakistan, and the government should make passing it a priority.”

Strangely, apart from a routine show of dismay, the lapsed bill has not really generated much protest from civil society in general, or women parliamentarians in particular. “We have been short on activism,” agrees Zohra Yusuf, a rights activist and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). She says a “sustained campaign of protest and lobbying” is needed.

But Nasreen Azhar, another rights activist, disagrees with Yusuf, saying, “It was noticed and anguish was expressed. Some of us did speak privately to people in authority expressing disappointment.” Azhar is also a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), an independent statutory body. She holds the Senate and the Law and Parliamentary Affairs Ministry responsible for the lapse.

Agrees I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the HRCP, “The minister concerned (Babar Awan, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs of the PPP) should be held responsible for the lapse of the bill.”

Adds Gohar, “I feel the minister, in his private capacity, is creating obstacles in the way of any positive bills for women by creating the impression that the religious parties would oppose it. Both the president [Asif Ali Zardari] and the prime minister [Yusuf Raza Gillani] supported the bill.”

While no progressive bills have ever lapsed, Rehman recalled that “during [President] Musharraf’s period, many other bills lapsed because legislators who had moved them were boycotting the session.”

Pro-women bills have often met with roadblocks in Pakistan. The call for the repeal of the infamous Hudood Ordinances have met with far stiffer resistance. The Hudood Ordinances, introduced in 1979 during the regime of former president General Zia-ul Haq, cover a range of crimes and also applies to non-Muslims. These Islamic decrees have been enforced within the country’s secular legal system.

In 2006, amendments made in the Hudood Ordinances under the Protection of Women Bill met with a similar fate. The arm-twisting by the religious right resulted in the bill being modified and revised. “Obviously there are people who are patriarchal and do not have an understanding of, or sympathy to, the rights of women. But one suspects that the main reason is political,” says Azhar, adding, “It seems our governments never learn. No matter how much you appease them they [religious parties] will never support you.”

Gohar, also a member of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, formed in Nov 2008, believes that it is a matter of great concern how a “small step for women’s protection and rights was quashed”. She also clarified that women members did take up the issue of delay of the bill in the Senate but were silenced with the government’s argument that they needed the support of the religious parties. “Women’s rights bills always fall prey to political pragmatism,” says Yusuf.

The 28-clause bill, defines domestic violence as: “All intentional acts of gender-based or other physical or psychological abuse committed by an accused against women, children or other vulnerable persons, with whom the accused person is or has been in a domestic relationship”.

As per the ‘State of Human Rights in 2008’ report, issued by the HRCP, over 800 women were sexually harassed, 350 raped, 45 gang-raped and 13 were stripped. It added that 185 women were killed due to domestic violence and 138 others injured. A total of 7,571 incidents of violence against women was reported in the country, according to the women’s rights group Aurat Foundation’s ‘Situation of Violence against Women in Pakistan, 2008’.

According to the United Nation’s Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Pakistan, the Secretary General’s In-depth Study on All Forms of Violence Against Women in 2006, 89 states had moved legislation against Domestic Violence (DV). Of these, 60 states have specific DV laws. Had the bill become an act, Pakistan could have become the 61st country outlawing domestic violence.

Meanwhile, following the noise made by women parliamentarians over the lapse of the DV bill, the NA unanimously passed – with some last minute amendments extended to protect men – the sexual harassment bill at workplace. It had been gathering dust since October last year. It also gives hope for another soon-to-be-tabled bill, the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act 2009, submitted by four female legislators from different political parties.

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