After a yearlong impasse, Punjab Assembly passed a bill on February 24 that includes a new set of regulations to protect women against violence and harassment. On February 28, the governor of the province signed the bill into law.
The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act – which deals comprehensively with physical, emotional, economic and psychological violence and also has provisions against cybercrimes and stalking – faced strong opposition from both government and opposition lawmakers.
Drafted by the Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit on Law and Order, it was first tabled and approved by the provincial cabinet in May 2015.
Unlike previous such laws, it also proposes an effective mechanism for implementation. It recommends the establishment of women-run Violence Against Women Centers, open 24 hours to cater to the basic needs of abused women – such as first aid, medical check-up and psychological rehabilitation. A universal toll-free helpline will be set up for women to reach out to the centers in cases of emergency. The centers will offer mediation between the disputing parties, and will have the authority to enter any place or premises for rescuing women.
“It is for the protection of women who have already been beaten”
The key feature of the act is the provision of civil remedies for women that include restraining orders, monetary orders and residence orders. A residence order ensures that if a woman does not want to vacate her house, she has a right to stay in it. Otherwise, the defendant will have to provide for an alternate residence. If a woman fears violence from someone, the court may provide a protection order, telling the man to keep a distance from her. To ensure he is complying, he may be asked to wear a wrist monitor to track his location. The victim can also claim money from the defendant for her expenses or losses.
A Women Protection Committee will be set up in each district. It will oversee the functioning of the protection centers and shelter homes.
The law includes penalties for those who obstruct the work of the District Women Protection Committee, disobey the court orders, or meddle with their tracking device.
It also includes a penalty for false complaints.
The law has drawn strong criticism from right-wing religious parties. But legal experts and women’s rights activists believe that despite some shortcomings, the law is a good first step in the right direction.
The act has failed to categorically declare domestic violence as a criminal offence. It is therefore for the protection of women who have already been beaten, says human rights activist Jibran Nasir. He compares it with a similar legislation in Sindh. “In Sindh’s law, threatening divorce, character assassination and other such acts that can result in psychological pressure have been criminalized,” he says. “On the contrary, Punjab’s law comes into motion only when a woman has already been drained out emotionally and psychologically due to the abuse.”
Abira Ashfaq, a legal expert who wrote about her concerns regarding the law in a recent blog post, says it doesn’t criminalize domestic violence and offers civil remedies only, which she says are also very important.
“There are no penalties mentioned in the law except for the violation of residence, monetary or protection orders,” she says.
But Azma Bukhari, a PML-N legislator who had been working on the bill since 2002, says if an incident of domestic abuse is reported, it is automatically going to be a criminal offense under Pakistan Penal Code.
A number terms and definitions used in the law have been left ambiguous and undefined, some legal experts say.
“The law includes cybercrime as an offence but it doesn’t add what constitutes a cybercrime,” says lawyer and internet rights activist Nighat Dad. “Women are not generally aware of what would be considered a cybercrime. They face online stalking, abuses and threats on a regular basis. The bill should have given a clearer picture.”
It is also not clear if the staff at the protection centers will be trained to deal with complaints regarding cybercrimes.
Nighat Dad is also worried about the consequences of the use of tracking devices to record the lactation of suspects. “I am not against GPS trackers, but before launching them, has the government look into the possible repercussions?”
She fears mainstreaming such devices may lead to normalization of the concept of social surveillance.
“And in such a patriarchal society, wearing a tracker would mean an insult to a man,” she adds. “How can the government ensure that the man wouldn’t hurt the woman after he the tracker has been taken off?”
A number concerns of the impact of the law on men’s lives were expressed by religious leaders. Prominent cleric Mufti Naeem said the law was against the rulings of the Islamic Sharia. He accused the Punjab government of working on a foreign agenda. Leaders of Jamat-e-Islami and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F also criticized the law. The Maulana said he would start a campaign for the rights of husbands.
“According to Amnesty International, Pakistan has become the third most dangerous country for women,” Azma Bukhari says in response to such criticism. “Thousands of them face domestic abuse. It is the state’s responsibility to offer them protection.”
She believes the law does not hurt the traditional family system, and says mediation and reconciliation have been given priority in the law. “The elderly members of a family are asked to pave way for reconciliation between a couple. The District Women Protection Committees will do the same,” she says. But if the woman does not want to live with her husband any longer, they will help her part ways.
The Sindh and Balochistan assemblies have passed similar laws, but did not spark such strong reactions. Jibran Nasir believes members of the Punjab Assembly are responsible for that. “As many as 176 members were absent from the assembly on the day such an important bill was being passed,” he says. “That certainly is irresponsible behavior.”
What is a ‘protection order’?
Excerpt from the new law explains the provision for a protection order for women who fear violence
(1) If the Court is satisfied that any violence has been committed or is likely to be committed, the Court may pass a protection order in favour of the aggrieved person and direct the defendant:
(a) not to have any communication with the aggrieved person, with or without exceptions;
(b) stay away from the aggrieved person, with or without exceptions;
(c) stay at such distance from the aggrieved person as may, keeping in view the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case, be determined by the Court;
(d) wear ankle or wrist bracelet GPS tracker to track the movement of the defendant twenty four hours, seven days a week;
(e) move out of the house;
(f) surrender any weapon or firearm which the defendant lawfully possesses or prohibit the defendant from purchasing a firearm or obtaining license of a firearm;
(g) refrain from aiding or abetting an act of violence;
(h) refrain from entering the place of employment of the aggrieved person or any other place frequently visited by the aggrieved person;
(i) refrain from causing violence to a dependent, other relative or any person who provides assistance to the aggrieved person against violence; or
(j) refrain from committing such other acts as may be specified in the protection order.
(2) The Court may issue one or more directions contained in subsection (1) even if the aggrieved person has not prayed for such direction and may, keeping in view the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case, specify the period for which the protection order shall remain operative.
(3) The Court may impose any additional conditions or pass any other direction which it may deem reasonably necessary to protect and provide for the safety of the aggrieved person or any dependent child of the aggrieved person.
(4) The Court may require the defendant to execute a bond, with or without sureties, for preventing the commission of violence.
(5) While making an order under this section or section 8, the Court may, pass an order directing the Women Protection Officer to provide protection to the aggrieved person or to assist the aggrieved person or the person making a complaint on behalf of the aggrieved person.
(6) The Court may direct the police to assist the Women Protection Officer in the implementation of the protection or residence order.