International Women’s Day 2014: The pending laws

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Mar 8, 2014.

Islamabad – Except one “private member” bill introduced in September 2013, there are no women-specific laws pending in the National Assembly at the moment.

This is not entirely because of efficient elected representatives looking out for women rights. But simply because all women-related laws, which were pending by March 2013, “lapsed” when the 2008 National Assembly ended its five-year term.

In the months since, new legislators have only introduced one bill on women issues: a proposed amendment to a 2002 order, to enhance women’s political participation.

Four bills in the Senate during the same period, however, have called for anti-rape and anti-honour killing amendments to the criminal codes, protection for female students and, indirectly, the rights of women domestic workers.

Human rights activists and women legislators realize that better laws and effective implementation can bring some relief for Pakistani women, who live in an unforgiving patriarchal society.

They feel women’s issues should not have been devolved under the 18th Amendment. But if a reversal is not on the cards, they say, provincial policies favouring women should at least be replicated at the federal level.

Pro-women laws help where there is a lacuna in existing laws or an implementation gap that demands affirmative action, said Maliha Zia, a lawyer and a gender manager at women rights NGO Aurat Foundation (AF).

To its credit, the 2008 parliament passed some landmark pro-women laws. But at least two women-related bills got stuck and dissolved with the assembly, most importantly the Domestic Violence Bill which would have criminalised domestic violence at the federal level.

With around 990 cases of domestic abuse reported in 2012 and many more incidents unreported, penal code clauses for violence appear failing to protect women in the absence of domestic violence as a separate, punishable offence.

“Nobody recognizes domestic violence as a crime,” Zia said, indicating social pressure and uncooperative police behaviour. “Even when a woman goes to register a complaint, police dismiss it as a family matter to be sorted out through mediation.”

Sindh and Balochistan have taken the lead in providing this additional legal cover which could help avoid women’s suffering from being suppressed to the private sphere. Punjab is expected to follow.

The Sindh law criminalizes domestic violence with punishment, the Balochistan law surprisingly has not specified punishment leaving it to the courts to decide and the Punjab draft is more focussed on post-domestic violence care than ending violence to begin with, according to Zia.

“(However) psychological and emotional abuse in domestic violence is an important detail in the Sindh and Balochistan bills that was missing in the federal draft bill,” said Khawar Mumtaz, Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), which has studied the provincial laws while reviewing the lapsed federal bill.

The NCSW’s reviews of women-specific laws that lapsed in 2013 have been sent to the law and justice division.

“Now it is up to someone in the assembly to introduce the bills again,” Mumtaz said, adding there was “no reason” the federal government should not follow the provincial examples.

The Sindh government also appears ready to fix the age of marriage for girls at 18 instead of 16 — as per international conventions, health recommendations against adolescent pregnancies and national age limits for signing legal contracts.

But a previous Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assembly rejected a similar measure and the federal government is also still sticking to 16 years. But it might be too early to criticize the 68 women MNAs, some of whom are first-timers.

“The new women MNAs need to find their feet first and know the system,” said Mumtaz.

But she said it was also an opportunity for them to monitor the implementation of laws passed by their predecessors. A recently-formed caucus of women MNAs might provide the starting point for introspection and forward momentum, Mumtaz said.

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