The key challenge for victims of domestic violence is the State’s inability to create the required prevention and protection infrastructure
Despite strengthened legislative and administrative measures instituted in several countries, violence against women is a global phenomenon. According to UN Women estimates, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or non-partner at some point in their lives.
The 2018 Global Study on Homicide by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicates that of the 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017 worldwide, more than half, that is 50,000, were killed by intimate partners or family members - which means that 137 women across the world were killed by a member of their own family every day during 2017. More than a third of the women intentionally killed in 2017 - the figure comes to 30,000 - were killed by their current or former intimate partner (spouse or boyfriend).
Pervasiveness of domestic violence is mainly due to societal tolerance and acceptance in most cultures. Unfortunately, not only do the perpetrators of domestic violence often consider it normal to abuse women, physically or otherwise, a large number of women are also conditioned to accept, and even justify it in the name of tradition, and sometimes, even religion. Punjab Commission on the Status of Women’s (PCSW) 2018 Economic and Social Wellbeing Survey, which was conducted in 33,000 households across 36 districts of Punjab, shows that while 57% men believe it is justified to beat the wife if she ‘disobeys the husband’, 60% women justify spousal physical violence. Comments like "you should have beaten her lightly" or "you should overlook indiscretion by the man" show the extent to which domestic violence has been normalised in our society.
While violence against women takes many forms, from physical to sexual and emotional abuse taking place within the house and outside, in person and in cyber-space; intimate partner/spousal violence or domestic violence is most difficult to tackle. Nearly 34% of ever-married women in Pakistan have experienced spousal physical, sexual or emotional violence, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-2018. The survey states that the most common types of spousal violence are emotional violence (26%), followed by physical violence (23%), both of which have resulted in injuries among 26% of women. Five percent women have also experienced spousal sexual violence. Unfortunately, majority of the women (56%) who have experienced physical or sexual violence have neither sought help nor talked to anyone about resisting or stopping it.
Over the last two decades, South Asia has taken concrete measures that demonstrate seriousness of the governments and societies to tackle the grave issue. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have enacted, and strengthened, laws to prevent violence against women and increase penalties for it. These include laws against sexual assault, including rape and attempt to rape, crimes committed in the name of so-called honour, harassment of women in the workplace and in public spaces, child marriage, forced marriages, harmful traditional practices, and most importantly, domestic violence against women. All these laws and related measures derive from constitutional guarantees of equality, and provision of special measures to ensure equality, of women and children in Articles 25 (2) of the Constitution of Pakistan, 15 (2) of the Constitution of India and 19 (3) of the Constitution of Bangladesh. Tackling domestic violence requires a few crucial measures. Support mechanisms include strong legislation, awareness of rights, access to legal assistance and justice, and sensitive response to complaints of violence against women. In Pakistan, such measures have had limited success due to societal and institutional challenges, resulting in women’s reticence from approaching justice sector institutions for help. According to PCSW 2018 Economic and Social Wellbeing Survey, 50% of women who experienced violence told no one about the incident, and among those who sought help, only 1% approached the police.
Legislation tackling domestic violence in Pakistan demonstrates a crucial and welcome first step towards recognition of domestic abuse as a grave issue. It comes after strong resistance from conservative elements including some religious groups across Pakistan. Sindh, Balochistan and the Punjab have enacted Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Acts in 2013, 2014 and 2016 respectively. For over a decade, Islamabad Capital Territory and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa continue to strive while being unable to convince their legislative houses to pass laws in this regard.
Domestic violence legislation reiterates commitment to equality and dignity of women, and the need to protect women and children. Sindh and Balochistan recognise domestic violence as a criminal (punishable) offence, and extend its provisions to all those in domestic relationships (women, children and other vulnerable persons). In the Punjab, the law provides only for civil remedies, does not criminalise the first act of violence, and covers domestic violence against women but not others in a domestic relationship. All provincial laws define domestic violence in broad and comprehensive terms as physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, stalking and economic abuse. The Punjab specifically includes cyber harassment in its law, to curb this menace which affects social media users in cities and rural areas. These laws also outline a strong system for prevention and protection of victims, comprising special services, officers and forums involving police, medico-legal service, social workers and community members. The law in the Punjab provides an effective service delivery system but also needs penal remedies for effective deterrence.
Mechanisms are also given within laws to deal with the various forms of abuse in all the provinces. For instance, to deal with economic abuse - defined as deprivation of economic or financial resources, and denial of food, clothing or shelter - there is provision for monetary orders. This grants financial compensation in case of loss of earnings or medical expenses and for maintenance of victims. The laws also introduce effective legal redressal mechanisms in the form of protection, residence and custody orders for victims, and restraining orders for perpetrators. In the Punjab, an entire infrastructure has been created under one roof, the Violence against Women Centres, housing police desks, medico-legal services, a dedicated court (envisioned), social workers and shelters.
The laws create space to address sexual coercion within marital relationships through inclusion of sexual abuse as one form of abuse. Even though the definition of sexual abuse falls far short of a legal definition, containing vague terms such as abuse, humiliation, degrading and dignity that are open to interpretation, it may be used for prosecuting sexual coercion/abuse within a household by a spouse or another.
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Like many other laws, domestic violence related laws also contain gaps in terms of inconsistencies, and sometimes, confusion. For example, a ‘child’ is variously defined as 12 years old or 18 years old, whereas Pakistan’s accession to the Convention on the Rights of Child clearly defines a child as anyone below the age of 18 years. Similarly, committees and officers are provided at the tehsil level in Balochistan, at the district level in the Punjab, whereas in Sindh the law mentions provision of officers in ‘area in which domestic violence has taken place’. The law in the Punjab also falls short of criminalising domestic violence despite strong demands from women’s rights activists campaigning for years. However, the key challenge for victims of domestic violence arises from the State’s inability, or perhaps, lack of priority, to create the required prevention and protection infrastructure. None of the provinces have notified the protection committees, protection officers, and in Sindh the protection commission. Nor have they identified area-specific service providers, except for in Multan. This is despite the laws coming into force at once, in both Sindh and Balochistan. The Punjab has a problematic phase-wise implementation, making it easier for the government to delay setting up of redress mechanisms under the law. Other supportive instruments, such as a toll-free helpline, as promised in the Punjab, have also not been established yet. Promised periodic sensitisation and awareness trainings of protection officers, police, government officials and members of the judicial service, under the laws, have also not been systematically undertaken.
Enactment of laws is only one step in combating violence against women. If these laws are not accompanied with urgent attention to mechanisms for addressing violence, training and sensitisation of service providers, awareness of the communities to reject violence and support victims, and accountability for perpetrators, we should expect continued and high incidence of domestic violence in Pakistan. We should then not wonder why people like Fatima Sohail or Asma Aziz have to use social media to get justice. We should also not wonder why they have to go through media (mainstream and alternate) trials that are often won by men with support of other men, and sometimes women, who feel that women should not make a big deal of "halki phulki maar".