January 17, 2020
By Ahmed Saeed
When Rang Elahi – a landlord based in Lahore passed away in June 1990 – it was discovered that he had not made any will about the distribution of his property (some agricultural land) among his six daughters and two sons.
As a result his eldest son, Tariq Mehmood forcibly took over the possession of his father’s land depriving his sisters from their rightful share.
One of the daughters, Haleema Saadia, repeatedly asked Mehmood to distribute the property according to their rightful share of inheritance, but Mehmood did not pay heed and continued as sole beneficiary.
The sisters took action, and moved court against Mehmood.
Years passed but their case remained in limbo. Finally in 2018 – 38 years after the death of their father, the court ruled in favor of the sisters and ordered Mehmood to give them their due share.
But this was not an easy journey for Saadia and her sisters. Their brother harassed and tortured them. He wanted them to withdraw their claim.
“As we initiated the case, my brother started misbehaving with us. He made it difficult for us to step out of our house. We remained steadfast because we wanted our property back,” she said.
Unfortunately this is just one such case, of the thousands that occur all year round, where women are deprived of their legal share in property and inheritance, by none other than the men of their family. Through fraud, fabrication, coercion and other means, women are forced to surrender their inheritance rights.
Under the current set of laws, if a woman is deprived of her property by her family then she has to file a civil suit in the court to get the property transferred to her name. But, this process is quite time-consuming and a lot of running around is required. The legal process takes a financial toll on the litigant, as they have to pay hefty fees to the lawyers.
To end this practice and to secure the rights of ownership of women in the property, the National Assembly has passed the ‘Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Bill, 2020’.
This Bill seeks to establish an office of Ombudsman to expedite the process of giving relief in such cases where women are deprived of their movable or immovable property.
According to the Bill any woman who has been deprived of ownership or possession of property by any means, can file a complaint to the Ombudsman. The complaint can also be initiated by the ombudsman himself or even by an non-governmental organization (NGO).
For further investigation, the Ombudsman may ask the concerned Deputy Commissioner to conduct a summary inquiry and submit a report within 15 days.
But if no further inquiry is needed, then he may directly order any state functionary to restore or confer the disputed property to the complainant.
The Bill also empowers the ombudsman to file a reference in the concerned civil court, which shall entertain the reference and proceed further in terms of code of civil procedure 1908.
In case, the matter regarding the property is sub judice the ombudsman after preliminary inquiry can recommend the concerned court either to terminate the case or put it in abeyance and permit the ombudsman to take proceed the matter under the ‘Women’s Property Rights Act 2020’.
The legislation also proposed that the Ombudsman may also order the defendant of such a case to reimburse the rent that the property would fetch at the prevalent market rate for which the complainant was deprived of the use of such property.
Other measures proposed by the Bill include that the Ombudsman’s authority created under the proposed law should have the same powers, functions, and authority as are vested in the Ombudsperson for the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010.
However it should be noted that this measure and the powers of the Ombudsman are to only apply to the Islamabad Capital Territory.
Meanwhile it is important to remember that the act of depriving a woman of her rightful property is already a criminal offence under the law.
Section 498-A of the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act, 2011 criminalizes this, while it says that the person doing so shall be sentenced to prison from five to up to 10 years, with or without a fine of Rs one million.