May 5, 2016

BARELY LEGAL | Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2015

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In 2012 Pakistan ranked as the second most dangerous country for women, and annual country reports show a consistent increase in gender-driven violence. The power dynamic in Pakistan is clear; men are in charge and do whatever is necessary (violent or non-violent) to keep women subservient. This ideology allows physical and mental abuse of women and often leads to their death under the label of Honor killings.’ On Feb. 25, the Punjab Assembly unanimously passed the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill. This bill marks a turning point for Pakistani women, giving much-needed recognition to the continuous violation of their rights.

Criticism from the rightist party relies on this bill disrupting the ‘traditional family unit.’ This conventional ideology supports violence against women by effectively encouraging men to turn a blind eye to the rights of women in order to protect the sanctity of the home and maintain the traditional family unit. The passing of this bill moves us away from the ideology that condones such violence. The bill is drafted from the perspective of protecting the victim and distances itself from punishing the perpetrator. This shift in perspective is not detrimental as existing legislation, such as the Pakistan Penal Code, explicitly deals with criminal sanctions for perpetrators. The focus on victims is definitely a new approach for Pakistan. Useful as this is, concerns about implementation and whether the bill will benefit women in all areas of the country remain.

No law is perfect; the bill as passed is detailed and sets the platform for being a good law but leaves certain issues in the air. Those drafting chose to err on the side of caution by side-lining the perpetrator and focusing on the victim. This acknowledges the current mind frame of Pakistani society as one that would not readily accept outright criminalization of violence against women. Specifically criminalizing violence against women could actually reduce the danger posed to women but such a bill would not be passed. This makes the decision to pass a protective bill sounder, some protection being better than none.

The term ‘violence’ is defined in the context of the bill to include aspects of physical, mental/emotional and economic abuse. This definition is broad, acknowledging that violence against women is widespread and occurs in more than one way, but fails to identify different forms of abuse. For example, sexual violence is not explicitly part of the definition. It seems the drafters rely on the idea that such instances are covered under different legislation and do not need reiteration. Critics argue, unconvincingly, that the term ‘defendant’ should be limited to the husband of the aggrieved. The drafters deserve credit for appreciating that women are vulnerable to violence from their spouse and others such as in-laws, parents, siblings, etc. The fear that women will misuse the bill because of its broad scope is not a realistic concern because, unfortunately, women in Pakistan have traditionally been suppressed and will remain hesitant in bringing forward issues of violence. Cultural and societal repercussions still act as barriers to women asserting their rights. This is why a broad definition of ‘defendant’ is important — it aims for maximum protection for women but also establishes greater symbolic significance of the bill.

The bill extends protection of the law to victims of violence by creating different procedures for relief. The bill is a move towards protecting the rights of women as guaranteed by the Constitution. The procedural reforms include a universal toll-free helpline, assistance from the district women protection officer and the creation of protection shelters for the safety of victims. These reforms require extensive training for staff, maintenance of quality of services and close monitoring of shelters. It is not easy to meet these standards, and most of these reforms will be effective for only those women residing in big cities. Many women in rural settings will not have access to telephones or means to access these new services and so their protection remains limited. The procedures do provide a platform for reporting instances of violence more accurately, however, which helps assess whether the situation of violence against women is actually improving.

The bill authorizes courts to take necessary steps to ensure victims can continue with their day-to-day life. The court may issue protective, residence and monetary orders where a complaint is filed against a perpetrator. The bill acknowledges that victims seeking help from the court will face societal pressures and potential harassment, and so orders can be made to restrict the defendant or defendant’s relatives from interacting with the victim at the residence and workplace. The bill is symbolic for all women as it addresses the potential barriers and fallout victims face, whether related to money, residence or culture. This is praiseworthy because without these considerations the bill would be a mere illusion of protection. The effort to protect aggrieved persons is a step forward.

The unanimous passing of this bill shows real progress in the legislature, as it clearly acknowledges that violence against women is an issue in Pakistan. The legislature’s efforts to protect women should be taken up by the courts in the next phase. To ensure protection, courts should: (i) punish perpetrators for violence under the Penal code or other legislation, and (ii) order protective, residence or monetary measures for the victims (as necessary) under the new bill. Implementing this bill in addition to sanctioning the perpetrators could actually lead to a Pakistan where women no longer have to live in fear. This bill breaks the glass ceiling by definitively bringing these issues within the scope of the legal system. Only time will tell whether this bold step lives up to the expectation it sets for women in Pakistan.

Sevim Saadat is an LL.M. candidate at Cornell Law School. Responses can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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