While the last decade has witnessed an increase in enactment of women protection laws, their enforcement remains a gigantic task. Such a situation has given birth to a growing realisation that mere legislation may not pay the required dividends and that implementation and monitoring of laws is equally important.
Primarily, such legislation is either the outcome of democratic governments wanting to fulfill their manifestoes that require the extending of protective shields to women victims of crime, or the need to adhere to international commitments. At the same time, however, the judiciary, women’s rights organisations and the media have also played historic roles in getting such laws passed.
There are around 20 laws that directly and indirectly concern women. What is needed is awareness regarding such laws, which is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Despite living through an information revolution, majority of women are unaware of these laws. The Guardians and Wards Act of 1890, Foreign Marriage Act of 1903, Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act of 1939,Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961, West Pakistan Rules Under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961, West Pakistan Family Court Act of 1964, West Pakistan Family Court Rules 1965, Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restrictions) Act of 1976, Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Rules 1976, Hudood Ordinances 1979, Qanun-e-Shahadat Order 1984,Pakistan Citizenship Act of 1951, Criminal Law (amendment) Act of 2004, Protection of Women Act of 2006, Criminal Law Act of 2010,Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2010,Prevention of Anti-women Practices Act of 2011, Acid control and Acid crimes Prevention Act of 2010 and the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act of 2011, are included in this exhaustive list.
Where the media has perhaps failed is to create awareness of these legal instruments that are available to women and that can help redress their grievances. Commercial priorities of media organisations, the lack of capacity of media persons and other communication barriers have played a role here.
Before enacting of women protection laws, there has been little assessment of the gravity of the situation vis-a-vis women’s rights, nor has there been any monitoring apparatus to determine the efficacy of such laws and other means to identify the hurdles in the way of their implementation. We have not seen any concrete consultative process being followed before laws are enacted, hence such legislation is a by-product of isolated endeavours. Laws are codified one day and the very next day the public learns about their enactment and salient features, with there being little follow-up by the media to monitor their implementation.
In addition, awareness of these laws and what they entail within the police apparatus is also dismally low, highlighting the communication gap between the framers of laws and the enforcement apparatus, which needs to be bridged.
Owing to cultural taboos, countless occurrences of violence against women go unreported. Statistics regarding violence against womendepict that this is perhaps more of an urban phenomenon, but in practice, violence against women is actually a rural issue that framers of law need to take into account.
Simplification of laws and procedures, and providing widespread information regarding these will definitely help improve women’s protection. However, owing to cultural taboos, illiteracy and a male-dominated criminal justice system, women’s access to justice often becomes difficult. The majority of female victims from rural areas are not aware of their rights and lack knowledge on how to seek police help. Consequently, victims of crimes often also become victims of an obsolete criminal justice system.
In Pakistan, the contemporary women policing model was introduced during the tenure of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. This model, however, remained confined to major urban centres only. After three decades, the failure of this isolation-based women policing system was finally acknowledged. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), initiatives have been taken to establish a more collaborative and integrated women policing model with there being the formation of gender crime cells, a women police network as well as the setting up of 35 women police desksin police stations by the K-P police.
To synergise the efforts of women parliamentarians, the creation of the women’s parliamentary caucus is a commendable step. This forum needs to enthusiastically carry out a national study regarding the state of women’s rights, laws and their implementation in the country. Such an initiative requires collaboration with NGOs, the National Police Bureau, the law ministry and the academia.
To extend financial and legal assistance to women languishing in jails, the Senate has passed the Women in Distress and Detention Fund (amendments) Act of 2011. While the original law was passed in 1996, owing to legal and procedural complications, its dividends are yet to be enjoyed by those women who are behind bars.
Another important law was passed a few years ago to address the issue of sexual harassment i.e., the Criminal Law Amendments Act of 2010. The law explains that any person found guilty of sexual harassment is liable to be penalised with imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to Rs500,000, or both. The biggest issue, however, is that in Pakistan the majority of the victims of sexual harassment are not aware of their rights or they are reluctant to report their ordeal.
When it comes to domestic violence, the attitude of law-enforcement officers is of particular relevance. Investigators need to be better trained in dealing with such cases as a majority of them perceive violence against women as a family affair and so they often end up hushing up the issue. Law-enforcement officers need to realise that they have to be subservient to the law, not to traditions.
The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act of 2012 explicitly placed domestic violence within the orbit of the public domain. After filing a petition, the court is required to hear the case within seven days. The next hearing needs to be scheduled within 30 days of the first one. The court is required to rule on the petition within 90 days. This act, however, is restricted only to the federal capital and there is a need for provinces to also enact similar laws.
The issue we face when it comes to legislation related to protection of women’s rights is not of scarcity of resources, but rather the primitive mindset of our society at large and the lack of a will to implement laws. It is this mindset that we need to change so that a humane women protection apparatus can be established.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2015.