Swallowing the bill

Punjab's Domestic Violence Bill has divided opinion. Luavut Zahid reports

Swallowing the bill
After Sindh and Balochistan got their domestic violence bills, it was only a matter of time before Punjab followed suit. However, many who have worked on the bill are having a hard time swallowing the bill pill. While it is the need of the hour, activists feel that it needs to go through a boot camp before it can be seen as effective. On the other hand, legislators think that this version of the bill is the only way such a legislation could move forward.

Yasmin Rehman, who moved a Domestic Violence Bill in the National Assembly in 2009, calls the current Punjab bill ‘toothless’. “Bills such as these challenge the status quo, which needs to be maintained. If it isn’t declaring it a criminal offence then it’s nothing more than a toothless bill,” she says.

Rehman’s Bill passed through the Assembly despite opposition but collapsed in the Senate. Despite that, she feels that real change cannot take place without legislation.

“Because PML-N is a right winged party they are making cosmetic efforts to promote a softer and more progressive image. They’re trying to bring some of their women to the front as well, but if it is done in this manner then what is the use?” she says.

Lawyer and Activist Hina Jilani thinks that the piece of legislation is too fixated on the consequence of domestic violence and not at all on how to deter it.

“What they’re saying is: here are the things that we are willing to do for a woman who gets beaten up, but we will not address perpetrators or how we should be dealing with them so that the practice can be stopped,” she laments.

The current government has made few friends while working on legislations, as well. This was also the case with the cybercrime bill where civil society organisations felt silenced and ignored.

“It is very clear that this government closes its ears when it is proposing legislation. They have a consistent record of legislating in a manner in which democratic governments are not expected to behave. There is no full consultation, lack of listening exists, the civil society they feel is only a nuisance and not elements that can make useful suggestions - even though they are the ones dealing with the social outcomes of these practices!” she says while explaining how long lasting the effects of the bill could be.

“The question is not just dealing with the consequences, it is also about dealing with the social practice, the law can only become a tool for social change when it deters such practices,” Jilani says.

The bill hasn’t had an easy time up till now. Religious elements have opposed it and parties have had trouble understanding why it’s needed in the first place. Jilani has no love for these quarters.
Bills such as these challenge the status quo

“The religious parties are socially irresponsible parties, frankly. Their comments have been totally disconnected with the social realities in this country, which result in harmful practices, especially for the women,” she says as a matter of fact.

But the real question is what the government is thinking.

“These are legislators that are not a part of religious groups, can their conservatism be acceptable to us to the extent that they become party to the continuation of certain practices which are making the lives of 90 per cent of the women of this country untenable,” she questions.

“What is missing in their spirit is the recognition that domestic violence is prevalent in this country and needs to be deterred - this spirit is lacking in this legislation,” she adds.

Azma Bukhari, a PML-N MPA, has been working on the bill and sees things differently than Jilani and Rehman. Criminalising domestic violence isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“I’ve been working on the bill since 2002 when it was brought forward but didn’t go past the standing committee, and we couldn’t take it forward. The reason was that admitting that domestic violence is a criminal offence is extremely hard. People are not prepared to accept that this as an offence – they say that it’s between the wife and husband,” she explains.

Bukhari is in favour of criminalisation but doesn’t think it can happen with the snap of a few fingers. “I’m a criminal lawyer and under the PPC any man who hurts his wife or his maid will be dealt with as per the things he has done and the relevant sections of the PPC will be applied to him. To say that it hasn’t been criminalised isn’t entirely true,” she argues.

The MNA also thinks that the right wing has its own place in society and cannot be entirely ignored. “The right wing exists in the society so they have to be taken into account and a bill needs to be such that it can be implemented,” she says.

One of the biggest arguments against the bill has been the fact that civil society organisations, who had been working on the bill, were excluded without a word from the final process. But Bukhari doesn’t think the criticism is justified.

“They were not ignored at all. I was on that committee and I attended several meetings that happened back then. A lot of the clauses were added after their consideration,” she asserts.

The bill was stopped on the floor of the Punjab Assembly by Bukhari who thinks that it needs several reconsiderations.

“A new committee is being constituted which will consist of 50 per cent women. We will try, and I will recommend to the Law Department, to invite NGOs and other counterparts to be taken into confidence on the matter,” she says.

Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Bukhari.

“If you are saying that domestic violence doesn’t need to be criminalised then why do you need the bill? If there are already provisions in the law then why do it? Their own statements contradict each other,” she says, clearly irked.

“Secondly, the interpretations in the PPC, had they been interpreted from the get go then they wouldn’t have needed this bill to begin with, but this is something they never did. And when someone goes to the police to register an FIR then the police says that it isn’t even domestic violence and they won’t’ execute an FIR over a ‘home matter’ so how can they say the PPC can handle it?” Dad questions.

“At that time when the PML-N was in opposition they came to all the consultations and made all kinds of promises that they would make a difference. All these statements disappeared as soon as they came into power and started working on their own,” she adds.

Where did the work by Aurat Foundation, Shirkat Gah and other’s go? Dad points out that the current government’s modus operandi is such that they work on one draft with stakeholders and approve something completely different when the time comes to play.

There is also the matter of why the bill is being rushed through. International pressure has been mounting on Pakistan to do something about its human rights issues. In the past, in 2012, when IMF stopped Pakistan’s funding Zardari eventually bowed down to pressure and ratified certain treaties to appease it. The current government is also under pressure from things like the GSP Plus status and the Millennium Development Goals.

“So there’s pressure from there and from international donors, add to that the civil society organisations that point out that both Sindh and Balochistan have a bill then what is Punjab’s problems? But this one is just a piece of paper, it defines nothing. They’re acting as though the people are ignorant or naive that they can pass whatever law they want and no one will be able to tell what they’re up to,” she adds.

Fauzia Viqar, Chairman of the Punjab Commission on the Social Status on Women, feels that the bill is the most appropriate solution to the ground realities that are at play.

“The Bill that civil society organisations are talking about, I personally presented it to the government. The one thing that has been removed from it was a particular segment which had definitions of domestic violence,” she says while clarifying that stakeholders were never ignored.

“Apart from that, it has measures to help women. They [civil society organisations] are right that the first instance of offence is not being criminalised, and instead of sending a man to jail civil remedies have been added that he will stay away from the wife, or provide her money or compensation, or that he will not kick her out of the house and accommodate her,” Viqar explains.

The problem lies in the social fabric. “If a woman goes and complains before you get to them to do something about it they’ve resolved it amongst themselves. Domestic violence is very tricky because it involves children and a lot of other things. If you jail a man as soon as it happens then you’re basically ensuring that things in that home will go sour between them immediately. At least they will have a chance to fix the situation,” Viqar says while addressing criticism of the bill.

“However, if the court passes orders and within a week he beats her up again, then that is a breach of order and there are several provisions in the law for that. So yes, the bill is a little bit different than the original draft. It does not criminalise domestic violence from the first offence but it provides alternate protection measures,” she says.

The Punjab bill is also at par with the ones being enacted in the region, including Bangladesh and India. “After having examined the law I found that this bill is exactly built on the same lines. The substance of this bill is what is practiced elsewhere also,” she says.

Critics have also pointed out that both Sindh and Balochistan criminalise the first offence of domestic violence.

“Yes, it is not like it is in Sindh for sure, since there the first offence has been criminalised. However, an argument can be made that it’s been two three years since that law was enacted but not one case has been brought under that law - because it is an unrealistic and ineffective law,” Viqar says, once more revisiting the ground realities that the bill would be tackling.

“The one thing I like is that it has a strong protection structure. This includes violence against women centres, stronger Darul Amans, and I know that they needed legal cover. If anything the structure is what is going to make the bill workable, rhetoric doesn’t make any difference,” Viqar says.

The bill is currently being reviewed once more under another committee. Any version that is enacted will have to ensure that the law is one that is workable and not just a cosmetic effort meant to appease a few. The Punjab government have their work cut out, indeed.