The last significant legal measure taken for the protection of women against domestic violence was a Bill that was passed 7 years ago. Since then, apart from a minor 3-page amendment to the original text of the Bill, there has been little legal reform aimed at structurally facilitating and protecting women from becoming victims to violence in the apparent safety of their own homes.
As one can guess, despite this laggard progress in legal reform, the reported number of domestic abuse cases have increased exponentially in the Land of the Pure. According to the 2017-2018 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 28 percent of women aged 15 to 49 had experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.
This should set off alarm bells in our heads. The already abysmal state of affairs has been made worse by incidents last year that served as a harrowing reminder about the security of women in Pakistan, or lack thereof. Noor Muqaddam, who was brutally tortured and beheaded in Islamabad; Ayesha Ikram, who was shamelessly groped by 400 men at Minar-e-Pakistan, a location revered for its national significance; or the fact that on March 8th, International Women’s Day, women were beaten with batons in the federal capital by police personnel for exercising their constitutional right to protest.
All of this serves to tell us one thing: the structures we currently have in place in our society for women's protection are hardly working.
An initial reading of the legal framework passed by the Punjab government under the “The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act of 2016” uncovers some grossly obvious issues in the Bill that have yet to see any redress.
Somewhat shockingly, the Bill does not criminalise the act of domestic violence itself. Once a charge of domestic violence or abuse is proven in a court of law, women cannot hold the aggressor legally culpable; neither through fines, nor incarceration. The implications of this are rather simple: there is nothing criminal when men carry out domestic violence or abuse. Effectively, this means that the state has created no systemic deterrence within the country’s legal system to prevent or deter future cases of domestic violence. All other measures that the Bill lists out are an attempt to provide relief and rehabilitation to the aggrieved. In a patriarchal society like ours, where men are already excessively empowered through every institution - be it the nuclear family, government, courts and majority religion; none of the sanctions listed down in the Bill feel particularly threatening.
The Bill, in an attempt to have interpretive capacity, sets out extremely vague definitions for salient words. The original Bill limited the meaning of ‘domestic violence’ to only include instances when it was inflicted by someone “whom the aggrieved is living or has lived in a house when they are related to each other by consanguinity, marriage or adoption” (Section 2R).
While this clause was reworded for inclusivity purposes in the 2022 amendment, it only included instances when it may have been caused by someone who is a repeated visitor or has connections through employment with the aggrieved. This definition still does not include cases where the abuse is carried out by a husband’s relative, by someone who doesn't visit the house, but the aggrieved has to repeatedly meet because of constant visitations to their house or some other public place.
The other aggravating part is that while the Bill claims to identify psychological violence, which at first glance feels like a progressive decision, it only defines it in its extremity. Under Section 2(2), the Bill declares that “psychological violence includes psychological deterioration of aggrieved person which may result in anorexia, suicide attempt or clinically proven depression [...] condition is certified by a panel of psychologists appointed by District Women Protection Committee.”
The clause only mentions three extreme forms of physiological conditions, without any concern for how mental health is extremely subjective and exists on a broad spectrum. If we are to (correctly) assume that the panel of psychologists determining a victim’s conditions would be composed almost entirely of men, who would always prefer blaming abuse on female hysteria and speculation, it is unlikely that most cases would hardly become eligible for proper legal review.
While the Bill does a facetious job at including stalking and instances of cybercrime, it gives little further explanation about what constitutes those, simply stating that ‘words or expressions not defined in this Act shall have the same meaning as assigned to it in the Code of Criminal Procedure or the Pakistan Penal Code.” However, the words “stalking” and “cybercrime” are not defined in either.
Section 2d of the bill states that all complaints brought under the Bill are meant to be overseen by family court. However, the jurisdiction of the family court under the Family Court Act of 1964 doesn't even stretch far enough to be able to oversee and hear cases of domestic violence. This sort of loophole is a structural issue that should have been brought to attention during a rereading or when the Act was amended. Sadly, it was not.
Furthermore, the Act only allows women who are leaving their place of residence and finding shelter elsewhere to take their dependent son along if he is below the age of 12. This feels inconsiderate to a mother’s connection with her child, and underestimates the kind of emotionally codependent relationship kids aged 12 and above usually have with their mothers. Practically, this would often disincentivize women from seeking out help and shelter under the auspices of the Bill, because of the potential threat of losing custody of their children.
While this Bill is a step in the right direction, there seem to be multiple and rather apparent issues in the lack of procedural information or deadlines on the implementation of its sections. The Bill gives little in the way of an outline for next steps in this direction. Section 3(2) for examples, states that “measures for the implementation of the act,” such as the establishment of protection centres and shelters will be carried out “under a phased programme.”
What does this phasing look like? Having only one violence against women centre established in Multan since the passing of the Bill? That is the reality of the Bill’s implementation since 2016.
The kind of multifaceted system that is needed to ensure victims get access to proper rehabilitation and the economic, financial and social relief laid down in the Bill can only be provided if these centres are present in every district, if women protection officers are properly appointed and continuously trained, and the entire mechanism is reviewed after suitable intervals. But the lack of such facilities in place makes the entire Bill rather redundant.
The Bill seems to be a rushed through in an attempt at appearing progressive, but an attempt that had little concern for how violence against women usually manifests in on-ground situations. There are a lot of nuances that the Bill could have been more specific about, to ensure the lack of a disconnect between the true intentions of the Bill and how the courts interpret it to be. Considering that most of the legal proceedings would be subject to the ever-present internalised sexism and misogyny within Pakistan’s policing and court system, it is safe to assume that the loopholes listed above in terms of lack of specificity in definitions have acted as deterrents to women receiving justice.
Domestic violence is already a topic shrouded in societal taboo and shame, causing it to hardly ever come up as a topic of conversation. This disallows any constructive discourse around the issue, halting any progress for Pakistani women. Most people still believe it to be a familial issue, one that should be strictly dealt with behind closed doors or worse yet, silently endured by women in the name of protecting the family.
What we need right now in Pakistan is official action that is headfast and persistent in the statement it makes. One that criminalises domestic violence, and guarantees punishment for aggressors. One that reminds our society that domestic violence is unacceptable, and that we have a moral obligation to protect Pakistan’s women from being subject to abuse and violence in their own homes.