Not more than a month ago, a man in Hyderabad burned his wife alive. The police disclosed that the couple’s 17-month-old daughter was also burned and injured in the incident.
Just a week before that, a man reportedly killed his wife after torturing her in the Barrage Colony of Hyderabad. The couple had four children together.
Akin to that, in early August, a man in Peshawar allegedly stabbed his mother and niece to death after the mother refused to pay for his drugs.
In July, MPA Zehra Naqvi moved an adjournment motion in the Punjab Assembly over the killing of more than 80 women for honour across the province in the ongoing year. Per the report, between January and November 2020, at least 83 women were killed in the name of honour in Lahore alone. Similarly, between 2014 and 2019, more than 500 women were killed by family members in Sindh in the name of honour. What’s more, a survey conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that one in every three women in Punjab, aged between 15 and 64, had been subjected to some sort of violence.
Given the alarming rise in cases of violence against women, Pakistan was ranked 153rd out of 156 nations by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021. In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation had ranked Pakistan the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women in terms of economic resources and discrimination as well as the risks women face from cultural, religious, and traditional practices, including domestic violence.
Human rights activists say that despite the growing number of domestic violence cases in Pakistan, most of them go unreported as women are forced to put up with abusive spouses or in-laws to “save” their marriages. As a result, each year, women are killed in the name of honour, for marrying the man of their choice, or for petty issues like serving cold food.
To address the pressing issue, the Federal Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari moved a Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2021, in the National Assembly in April. The bill was also passed by the Lower House the same day. But when it was sent to the Senate, it was rejected by one vote. Subsequently, the bill was sent to a standing committee for recommendations. However, the legislation became a subject of controversy after the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs, Babar Awan, wrote a letter to the National Assembly speaker to send the bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) – a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether a certain law is repugnant to Islam.
In the letter, Awan maintained that the proposed bill “contravenes the Islamic injections and the way of life as enshrined in the responsibility of the state in Article 31 of the Constitution.”
The bill is still under CII’s review.
While the bill aimed to protect women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups from domestic violence, there have been divided opinions regarding it. Critics maintain that certain provisions in the bill — such as the inclusion of emotional, psychological, and economic abuse — would allow children and wives to be “disobedient” towards the elders, especially the man of the family.
Taking to social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, critics of the bill also maintained that clauses such as “threats of divorce or second marriage on the baseless accusation of insanity or infertility” and making the perpetrator of violence “wear an ankle or wrist bracelet GPS tracker for any act of grave violence or likely grave violence which may endanger the life, dignity, or reputation of the aggrieved person,” would be impractical and equivalent to “western values.” Some even called the bill a “violation of the sanctity of the [home].”
Advocate Peshawar High Court, Zeenat Muhib Kakakhel, sheds light on why the bill is deemed controversial from a legal perspective. According to the proposed bill, within three months of the passage of its promulgation, a district protection committee will be formed comprising a representative of the family protection shelter, a representative of the National Commission on the Status of Women, a medical doctor, psychologist, or psycho-social worker, a law officer, a police officer not below the rank of inspector (preferably female) and a protection officer who shall also act as the secretary of the protection committee.
“To report an incident of domestic violence, a victim will have to go to the protection committee and lodge a complaint there but there is a lot of bureaucracy involved in the process,” says Advocate Kakakhel. “For instance, women living in small towns and villages, where incidents of domestic violence tend to be higher as compared to urban centres, may not know where to go to lodge a complaint, to begin with, or the procedure involved.”
Advocate Kakakhel also explains that even if a victim approaches the protection committee, there will be several procedures to follow, for example, a first information report (FIR) will have to be registered against the culprit, after which reconciliation would be advised to the parties involved. The parties involved will also be given proper time after reconciliation and if things do not settle, the victim can then go and file a complaint before the magistrate.
“One important concern is that if the victim goes to a protection committee to lodge a complaint and they do not get facilitated on time and they do not even to go the police to lodge an FIR, then the delay in the process can lead to a lot of legal hurdles once the proceedings start,” she warns. “In case of physical violence, a medical examination must be carried out in a timely fashion otherwise the case will face several difficulties in the court.”
Kakakhel also mentions that several other definitions included in the bill need to be properly stipulated to make it more practical.
On the other hand, Ahmad Pansota, Advocate Islamabad High Court, expresses that the bill is all-inclusive and one of its kind. “The bill itself is an amazing piece of legislation. If it is promulgated, it will provide penal sanctions for domestic violence,” he tells. Penal sanctions enable societies to distinguish between behaviours that are simply considered unacceptable and those behaviours that are considered truly harmful.
“The bill would allow any aggrieved person – including spouses, children, or anyone having a domestic relationship with the perpetrator – to file a domestic violence case against the perpetrator on various grounds which were previously not possible.
“Protection committees have been proposed under this law which will be responsible for implementing the law against domestic violence, counselling, and providing information to people or the aggrieved persons,” he elucidates.
Pansota further adds that another important aspect of the bill is that courts of magistrates can pass interim orders whenever an aggrieved person files a case. An interim order is a temporary order made when there is an urgent issue that needs action while the court process is going on. “These interim orders would be able to stop a perpetrator from entering the premises where an aggrieved person is present, for example.”
“So overall, it’s a very good legislation and even the definition of domestic violence is very, very extensive, which includes emotional abuse for the first time,” describes Pansota. “A lot of people in Pakistan, especially females, are subjected to emotional abuse where perpetrators try to emotionally abuse them through threats of divorce, threats of not financially providing for them, and threats of violence, etc.”
Even though there are many good things about this bill, Pansota said he isn't very hopeful about its future. “Despite being a comprehensive piece of legislation, the future of the bill hangs in the balance after it has been referred to the CII. In 2016, the CII had proposed a ‘model’ women’s protection bill, which would allow a husband to lightly beat his wife if needed. Given the history of the CII, the 2021 bill will likely not be approved by the council either,” he said.
While the experts and lawyers weighed in their thoughts to comprehend the bill, it was important to know how women actually perceive the bill – to whom it concerns directly. Though the bill is yet to be promulgated and turned into a law, Pakistani women view it as a good initiative, albeit with some reservations.
“It will hurt men's egos and the society won’t let the woman live either.” Afreen Saeed, a housewife from Karachi, opines. She added that Pakistani men will never agree to wear a GPS tracker even if the law requires them to. “We, as a nation, have to strengthen our family system and educate our boys at a young age to respect women, while girls should be taught to speak up and take a stand for their rights. Of course, passing such bills will help some victims of domestic violence but this is not the only solution.”
Amna Usmani, a working woman from Karachi, is of the view that while the bill is extensive – which is a welcome step – those implementing the law must be trained in doing so. “When you report abuse in western countries, the people who intervene have training in recognising the face and body language; so, they can figure out who is lying or if there is a problem. There should also be training conducted to remove personal biases. Such training should be included along with the bill in Pakistan, so the victim doesn’t have to worry about proofs,” she expresses. “A police officer should not be asking the victim to be patient or blame the victim for any reason.”
Speaking about the provision of emotional and psychological abuse in the bill, Sabiha Alwi from Lahore points out that although it will be difficult to prove, psychological profiling of the abuser can help. “For this, there is a need for the authorities concerned to have certified therapists and psychiatrists on board,” she specifies.
Alwi also adds another crucial point about how some people don’t even realise that they are being subjected to emotional abuse. “Some victims are okay with it, some develop patience over the passage of time to save their relationship with the abuser. Therefore, it may be difficult to establish a benchmark."
" In addition to social workers, counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists on the team, there should also be more shelters where women could seek refuge if immediately needed. We will have to do things systematically; otherwise, the bill will remain a piece of paper even if passed,” she concludes.