Shrouded in mystery, the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, 2015, is about to be tabled in the Provincial Assembly later today.
Civil society organisations working on the Bill have no idea what to expect – and expectations are extremely low at this point. The manner in which the domestic violence bill is being dealt with is somewhat the same as the cyber crime bill; information has been kept guarded by the government and civil society organisations who had been slaving away on the bill for two years, have now been blocked out of its creation.
Several organisations tackling women’s rights created a draft for a bill that could address issues relating to domestic violence under the Domestic Violence (Prevention & protection) Act, 2014. That draft was chucked out by the government, the recommendations entirely ignored. “The final draft submitted to Social Welfare was given in April 2014 by all CSO’s. The Dastak Charitable Trust did the drafting, Shirkat Gah endorsed it, and the Aurat Foundation was on the Committee too – but the Committee never met after that,” says Dina Arham, who has been working on the bill with Shirkat Gah.
“About two week ago we found out from the news that the govt had introduced in the Cabinet a bill on protection of violence against women,” recalls Dina. When the govt machinery was asked for a copy of the bill, it refused. “We got a copy from a journalist who had obtained a hard copy when the bill was tabled last week and it has serious gaps – the most major being that it doesn’t criminalise domestic violence,” Dina explains.
The current bill evidently borrows heavily from the Sindh and Balochistan Domestic Violence Acts, but despite official claims, it does little to really protect women. What the government seems willing to do is look at remedies instead of a cure – there are no provisions for what happens to a perpetrator, but several on what women should do post abuse. “It addresses consequence of the violence but it doesn’t get to the root of the issue,” Dina says.
Problems with the bill were taken up with the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and the Secretary Law, the latter of whom asked for a formal letter over the issue.
Under Farida Shaheed, Executive Director Shirkat Gah, the letter, dated June 2, 2015, requested an audience with the Standing Committee to highlight that the bill has several issues, including definitions that could leave young girls out of the protection umbrella, the limitations of Family Courts, the vague definition of violence committed against a woman, it has no mention of sexual abuse, the exclusion of emotional, psychological, verbal, economic abuse, etc, from the definition of violence, and others.
But the audience was never granted. “We then found out from a parliamentarian that the standing committee had approved the bill, after removing ‘contradictions’. But we don’t know what they did because we haven’t seen the amendments,” says Dina.
An emergency meeting was called by Simurgh, Aurat Foundation, SPO, SAP-PK and Shirkat Gah to look into the issue. Hina Jilani has been involved in the process and went to speak to the Secretary Law, along with other activists, for a solution to the issue. During the meeting, Jilani said, “This is not a domestic violence bill. This is merely a procedural document that lists how battered women should be provided protective services, which doesn’t even provide them a way to seek justice.”
Jilani was of the view that the provincial government would make a mistake in passing the half-baked legislation, which didn’t even scratch the surface of the issue.
The question is, why is the Punjab government shying away from introducing effective legislation on domestic violence. Is there no effort needed beyond providing shelter homes and centres for abused women?
A PDHs 2013-2014 survey outlines that there’s a state of emergency that no one seems to notice. One of every five women in the country are subjected to physical violence, a third of all married women go through it, as well. Over 40 per cent of women suffer spousal abuse at some point.
The irony is that even the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) has said that it isn’t happy with the bill. In a press statement the NCSW chair said that the Bill was meant to address a very important issue, but it fails to do entirely and only looks towards providing relief to victims.
While it borrows heavily from the legislation in Sindh and Balochistan, it has failed to copy one key ingredient: legislation in those provinces makes violence against women a criminal offence.
As things stand, If the bill is finalised today in its current form that it will do more harm than good in the long run. Cosmetic changes are not what is needed to tackle domestic violence.