Why is a Pakistani bill to protect women unpopular?

  • 17 March 2016
  • From the section Asia
Protest against so-called honour killings, Islamabad, 2008 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Attacks on women in Pakistan have provoked outrage, yet remain widespread

More than 30 Pakistani religious groups are threatening to launch protests if a bill to protect women in Punjab province is not withdrawn. Why do they not support moves to reduce the abuse of women?

Why is the bill needed?

The United Nation's Gender Inequality Index puts Pakistan 147th in a list of 188 countries because of its poor record on women's health, education, political empowerment and economic status.

This is mainly because Pakistan is a heavily patriarchal society with a strong feudal value system, in which women are treated as domestic property. Increased urbanisation and the concomitant fading of the joint family system have exposed women to further abuses.

A recent report for 2014 by a non-profit women's rights organisation, the Aurat (Woman) Foundation, said that every day of the year, six women were murdered, six were kidnapped, four were raped and three committed suicide. Dowry-related violence and acid attacks are in addition to that.

Over the decades, successive laws have sought to improve the position of women, but implementation has been lacking because it is mostly in the hands of male government functionaries and the police who consider most violence against women as a "family problem", or even provoked by women themselves.

The present law introduces women as complaint takers and enforcers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Activists protests against the killing of Farzana Parveen, a woman who was stoned to death by her relatives in Punjab after marrying against their wishes

What does the bill do?

The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015 seeks to set up a women's force at district level throughout the province, which would respond to women's complaints of physical, financial or psychological abuse.

Offences include domestic violence, sexual violence, psychological and emotional abuse, economic abuse, stalking and cybercrime.

The law provides for the setting up of District Women's Protection Committees, which will include officials of the district administration, the police, social welfare department and law.

The law also envisages the setting up of a universal, toll-free dial-in telephone number for women to call if they want to report an abuse. It empowers the women protection officers to enter any premises to recover women held captive.

It also provides for the establishment of shelters, and empowers the courts to restrain offending males from approaching those shelters, or places where victimised females work.

The law emphasises reconciliation between the parties, and as such it does not criminalise the offence at the outset. However, in the event of a breach of court orders with respect to the female's right to protection, residence or financial wellbeing, the offending male can be punished with one to two years in jail, and a fine of between 200,000 to 500,000 rupees (£1,350-3,400; $1,900-4,800).

The law has been hailed as comprehensive in liberal circles, where it is seen as providing a wider definition of violence against women and a one-stop mechanism for redress.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The new law aims to give women in Punjab province better protection from violence

Has the new law been used yet?

The law calls for creation of a vast institutional infrastructure, the recruitment and training of manpower, and the drawing up of detailed rules to regulate the legal and operational aspects of system to protect women.

The Act provides for "phased" implementation of the law, and officials say it will be some time before the first district protection teams get on the ground.

Who introduced it?

The law was drawn up in 2015 by the PML-N, the party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif which also governs Punjab province. The draft was approved by the provincial cabinet, and subsequently passed unanimously by the Punjab parliament in February.

The bill came as a surprise to many because the PML-N has long been seen as a right-of-centre party, often pandering to the religious lobby.

But many say it took the lead because it was under pressure to address the issue. Much of the violence against women takes place in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.

Why are religious hardliners unhappy?

On Tuesday more than 30 religious groups, including all the mainstream Islamic political parties, got together in Islamabad to condemn the law and to warn the Punjab government to withdraw it by 27 March. If not, they have threatened to launch protests.

One leader said these could be worse than those in 1977 - a reference to a religious movement which culminated in a military coup against Pakistan's first popularly elected government.

Religious groups have often equated women's rights campaigns with promotion of obscenity. They say the new Punjab law will increase the divorce rate and destroy the country's traditional family system.

But the Aurat Foundation's Naeem Mirza believes that religious groups are more incensed over the way the new law seeks to empower women.

"A woman can ring up a toll-free number for help, women protection officers can enter any premises to rescue her, and the husband is constrained by the law from throwing her out of his house. If he remains violent, he can be turned out of his house, and forced to wear a GPS tracker to ensure he doesn't get anywhere near the victim until a settlement is reached," he says.

"If implemented, these measures will fundamentally change the traditional power equation between men and women, something which the religious lobby will find hard to tolerate."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many women in Pakistan feel they need their rights strengthened

What happens now?

While the bill has been signed into law by the Punjab governor, the provincial government in Lahore is yet to formally notify it, fuelling speculation that it may agree to dilute the bill by sending it back to parliament.

If the government backtracks, many fingers will be pointed at the powerful military establishment which is widely believed to have been behind past demonstrations by religious groups - from the movement of 1977 to the so-called "million marches" of the 1990s that toppled one political government after another.

But many believe the government cannot afford to pay the political price of a retreat. The bill has been unanimously passed by the parliament, which represents the will of the people. A retreat will undermine democracy. It will also frustrate women at large who have drawn some hope from this law.

Additionally, such a move could give a fillip to social radicalism which both the civilian government and the military have been struggling to bring under control, at least on the domestic front.

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