August 22, 2022
By Xari Jalil
Shamim Akhtar knew well enough that her son-in-law was physically abusive, but she had no idea that one day the news of her daughter’s death would reach her door.
Twenty-five-year-old Sunita, a resident of Lahore’s Nishtar Town – would face both verbal and physical mistreatment from her husband Ehtisham and in-laws without much reason. Her mother-in-law would call her ‘ugly’ and deride her over trivialities. Her husband would often beat her. Once she was even made to leave her children behind and was kicked out of her house. Each time Sunita went to visit her mother they would not allow the children to accompany her, in order for her to rush back to them. She was never at peace.
On the day Sunita’s body was discovered, her in-laws claimed she had committed suicide, but the grieving Shamim knew in her heart that her daughter had been killed. As the hours passed, the body began showing suspicious bruises on her face and her arms.
“When they called me to their house to report her death, Sunita’s father-in-law said to me, “Hum se bohot bara nuqsan ho gaya hay” (We have caused great damage)!” says Shamim.
Sunita’s brother Shakeel says that his sister had been conveniently bathed – her hair was wet and the clothes she was wearing were fresh – the entire house had been cleaned to hide any trace of evidence – there was water on the floor as if it had been washed.
At present, the Nishat Colony police have the accused under protective custody. What will be the fate of the culprits is unknown. But Sunita’s fate was sealed.
Meanwhile, 27-year-old Maria*, a resident of Shahdrah Town, a locality on the edge of Lahore, spends her days doing household chores and looking after her four small children.
But, she says no matter what she does, and how hard she works, her husband is never happy with her.
“He is very free with his hands,” she says referring the physical abuse she often faces from him. “He once beat me so hard, I fell down – I was around 4 months pregnant at the time and ended up with a miscarriage.” Despite her age, her face does not look youthful and seems worn out and miserable by years and years of torture and brutality. Even her hair has started turning white.
For both Sunita and Maria, who have always lived under the threat of violence, they never tried to report it. Much of the reason was they had no idea if there was any law under which it could be reported. There has also always been a doubt of any justice being served in the present criminal justice system. Most of all, because they belonged to district Lahore, their cases could not be filed under the only Domestic Violence Law of Punjab which was passed in 2016. The report will examine the law in Punjab against domestic violence and the challenges in its implementation.
The fate of the two women is only a peek inside what women in Punjab encounter daily. For most women out there, domestic violence in one form or the other is considered normal. And the numbers show this.
But the more worrying part is that for women who are survivors of domestic violence, there is little encouragement for them in the current situation because of which they can pursue a criminal case against their spouse or in-laws for violence.
Because the 18th amendment allows the provinces to make their own laws, each of them has passed an Act for the protection of women survivors of violence.
In 2013 and 2014 respectively, Sindh and Balochistan passed their laws on Domestic Violence. Punjab followed in 2016, with the legislative package of the Women Protection Act.
The Punjab Act is meant to be a ‘procedural law’ which gives a code for its implementation and aims to establish an effective system of protection, relief and rehabilitation of women, against violence. But because there are conditions to its implementation this is where the problem arises.
For instance, it is clearly stated that the government must institute a universal toll-free dial-in-number for the aggrieved; it must also establish Protection Centres and shelter homes under a phased programme, appoint necessary staff at this Protection Centre for mediation and reconciliation between the parties, rescue, medical examination, medical and psychological treatment and legal help of the aggrieved persons and do a proper investigation of the offences committed; arrange for wide publicity of this Act and the protection system in Urdu and, if necessary, in local languages; institute a mechanism for the periodic sensitization and awareness of the concerned public servants about the issues involving women and the requirements of protection and relief of the aggrieved persons, etc
It adds that the government must also establish a database and software for a monitoring and evaluation mechanism in the prescribed manner to achieve the objectives of the Act and, where necessary, shall introduce necessary reforms for the purpose.
The Act will only come into force when the government will specify by notification. (Different dates will be specified for different areas in Punjab).
Lawyer Nida Aly, the executive director of Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS) highlights that at present the only district that has been notified is Multan, and that is because the Violence Against Women Center (VAWC) was inaugurated there because of its high numbers of violence against women in general. In particular, this means that only those women who are residents of Multan may seek shelter and protection in the VAWC there, and pursue a case. Women from other districts in Punjab cannot access any kind of justice under this six-year-old law.
The Multan VAWC was to be a model project for the government to prove how well the center can be run. But at the same time rising rates of violence against women in urban centres and big cities where education levels are also higher such as Lahore, and Rawalpindi also demand greater attention and need for such a centre. The
“A woman from Lahore cannot seek protection under this law mainly because the law has not been notified in this district,” she explains. “The Act needs the procedure to be adopted first so that it can be notified and subsequently implemented.”
Aly adds that since the law was designed in a way that requires it to be notified in phases, to date it remains to be made operational in the rest of Punjab as the government has not notified any other district since its enactment.
“As one of the first steps of our (AGHS) advocacy strategy we intend to sign an MOU with the Punjab Protection Authority for Women (PWPA) and make a joint strategy to involve the parliamentarians and mobilize their support for amendments in the 2016 Act,” she says. “Through this strategy, the Act will then be notified in at least six more districts in Punjab. This time however the existing infrastructure of government shelter homes will be converted to VAWCs.”
She says it would be a major achievement in providing justice for victims of violence and the outcome will provide a lot of protection and alternative relief mechanisms to victims of domestic abuse in Punjab, who have had no access to this law since its enactment in 2016.
THE INCIDENCE OF VIOLENCE
The Punjab Gender Parity Report 2019-2020 (Punjab Commission for the Status of Women, PCSW) reveals that during this time, most of the domestic violence cases had emerged from Lahore. This is shocking because Lahore is the hub of development, cultural capital and also the richest and most educated city in the province.
In the same report, it said that several cases of violence against women were recorded across the province in the report. These included instances of sexual assault, harassment, rape, kidnapping and domestic violence, a total of 8,797 cases in 2020 and 8,767 in 2019. Around 345 – the highest number of domestic violence cases in 2020 were recorded in Punjab’s urban capital. (However across Punjab there was an overall decrease of 3.5 per cent specifically in DV cases — dropping from 1,158 in 2019 to 1,118 in 2020).
Earlier in its 2018 report Economic and Social Well-being of Women 2018, PCSW revealed that at least 11 per cent of women had experienced some form of spousal abuse during the past 12 months during which the survey was done, while in total 38 per cent of women had experienced spousal violence during their entire lifetimes.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also gave similarly worrying statistics of VAW. From 2008 to 2014, there was a 33 per cent increase recorded in the cases of violence against women with the actual number of cases estimated to be higher than those reported in the media.
In 2014 for instance, HRCP detailed domestic violence across Pakistan in various categories including acid attacks, amputation, beating, injuries, murder bids, torture cases, setting on fire, and the shaving of hair. Among all the provinces, Sindh was leading with 41 per cent while Punjab was a close second with 39 per cent. Fifty-two per cent of the cases were registered with FIRs.
HRCPs study revealed that the reasons for domestic violence usually included arguments over household chores, infertility, not giving birth to a son, or leaving the house without permission from the spouse, and financial issues which lead to frustration such as low income, lack of dowry and property disputes.
It must also be noted that most cases of dissolution of marriage are based on domestic violence. AGHS records from December 2021 to June 2022 show that the organization received 67 cases in total where women applied for khula or dissolution of marriage.
AGHS lawyer Noreen Nazir who handles many of the cases specifies that there is hardly any case where domestic violence does not exist. “Among all our cases for khula, 100 per cent of them have reasons pertaining to domestic violence and physical abuse at the hands of the spouse or in-laws,” she reveals. “One of the khula cases that we are battling for in court, involves a woman who was beaten up by some men sent by her husband only because she had asked for a divorce.”
For women suffering from domestic violence, the general reaction is not to file a case against their spouses concerning this, but to file for a khula.
In its textbook definition, domestic violence (DV) is described as violence experienced or perpetrated within the ‘home’. This includes controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, as well as physical violence. It also extends to emotional, psychological, verbal, and even sexual abuse, especially at the hands of a spouse or intimate partner.
The Punjab Act defines violence as ‘an offence committed against the human body of the aggrieved person, including domestic violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, economic abuse, stalking, or cybercrimes’. It defines domestic violence as violence committed by the defendant with whom the aggrieved person is living or has lived in a house when they are related by consanguinity, marriage or adoption.
While PCSW gives startlingly high statistics for violence against women and also shows that the number of domestic violence cases in the province is growing, it also shows that from 2012 to 2015, there was a drastic fall (78.5 per cent) in the number of convictions. It also noted that with over 17,000 women residing in social service institutions in Punjab (at the time the statistics were recorded), existing facilities are insufficient to meet the needs in each district.
Salman Sufi Public Sector Reforms and Gender Strategy Specialist, who helped bring about the Act as well as establish the Multan center, says that the future may not be very bright despite various efforts being made.
“This is a very comprehensive act, and it needs certain things in place to be implemented to its fullest capacity,” he says while speaking to Voicepk. “We established the center in Multan and three more were in process, but these were halted by Mr Buzdar’s government, and they were not expanded. In the previous two months the budget was allocated for more centers but now the future is uncertain because of the change of government in Punjab. But we from the federal govt will continue to request the Punjab government to continue the project because its necessary for the VAW Act to be implemented.”
He said that as far as mechanisms are concerned, a slight adjustment was required in the notification by the Social Welfare Department so that they can enact the law themselves and they just need to make a procedural amendment. That is possible but it will be implemented through the local shelter homes and the police stations – which we will endorse.”
Sufi says that the universal hotline and the expansion of the ambit of VAWCs and providing education to each and every district in Punjab was already on the way in 2018, but since after the elections the process was halted.
NEED OF THE DAY
Mumtaz Mughal one of the directors of Aurat Foundation has been focusing on spreading awareness at the grass root level and says that her organization has contributed a lot by doing fieldwork.
“Since 2016 we have constantly been spreading awareness and creating advocacy for the law so that women know about it,” she says. Yet she still believes there is a lot more to do. “The government must take a few more steps if it wants the law to be implemented successfully.”
Mumtaz says the project will possibly expand to three more districts during this government, especially as a new PC-1 was being drafted.
“We seriously think the government should include a mobile gender desk which women can approach easily, rather than have a stationary gender desk in Multan,” she says. “There is also the fact that they may be using existing Darul Amans as VAWCs, but they should be promoted in such a manner that people see it as the government-run special VAW centre, not a Darul Aman. It’s a matter of trust. The VAWCs are tailor-made to handle criminal cases. The DUAs are not. There is also a matter of investing in trained officers, including medicolegal officers.”
Mumtaz feels that if the government falls back on the excuse of there not being enough resources it would be very disappointing. “If they don’t have resources then they should be given more resources, otherwise there is no point of the Law.”