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Five Questions About Punjab’s Protection of Women Against Violence Bill

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May 9, 2016

Women vote pakistan punjab
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The Five Questions Series is a forum for scholars, government officials, civil society leaders, and foreign policy practitioners to provide timely analysis of new developments related to the advancement of women and girls worldwide. This interview is with Salman Sufi, Senior Member of the Special Monitoring Unit, Law and Order, of Punjab, to discuss the historic Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, passed in Punjab in February 2016.

Can you describe the prevalence rate of violence against women in Punjab, and how the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill came about in response to it?

The level of violence reported is around eight women raped every day, eleven assaulted, and thirty-two women abducted. That represents at least sixty women subjected to violence every day in Punjab alone. And those are just the reported cases—there are clearly a lot more that go unreported, and this was unacceptable for the Chief Minister.

Pakistani legal code already covers a lot of offenses, but there was no mechanism that specifically catered to violence against women. There was a loophole that people took advantage of—when they went to police stations, they were told that acts of violence against women were domestic issues that should be taken care of in the home. With the bill, we wanted to make sure that we offered some civil remedies to violence, and remedies to address assault even before it happens—if there is solid evidence that violence may occur, a woman needs protection and support from the government.

From 2004 until 2012, the bill was in various forms of drafting, and then, in 2012, the Chief Minister announced on International Women’s Day that it was finally going to become a full act. In 2014, I took over at the law and order wing of Special Monitoring Unit, and, on orders of Chief Minister of Punjab, I took on this initiative. Most previous drafts focused only on domestic violence, but I wanted to make sure that all types of violence came into play—sexual violence, cyber violence, economic abuse, psychological abuse. In drafting the act, I wanted to make it comprehensive.

What measures will be taken to ensure that the new protections legally granted to women are implemented, given that violence against women is underreported and the conviction rate of perpetrators is strikingly low in Punjab?

Conviction rates are indeed extremely low—around one percent of cases result in conviction. This is why I introduced an implementation mechanism with the act. If we relied solely on police and other existing bodies like typical legislation does, the act wouldn’t work, because we’d be using the same old tools.

There are three major implementation mechanisms that are introduced in the act.

One, there will be civil remedies from family courts rather than only the criminal courts. This means protection orders that include, for example, if someone is harassing a woman, even digitally, sending texts, and trying to stalk her, or if a rapist is trying to intimidate someone into not going to the police. The court can pass a protection order so that an anklet GPS device will be issued to the perpetrator. The threat of a GPS anklet is also a big psychological deterrent in a society like Pakistan, and it will make people consider the legal ramifications before they commit violence.

Second, there is a residence order. If a woman is kicked out of a home for whatever reason but has a stake in the house, the order will guarantee her claim to the house, and, if she is not allowed back in or the situation is unsafe, the government will ensure that she gets to stay in the house she was evicted from, or provide her a shelter to stay in.

Finally, there is a monetary order—a remedy to anyone taking wages away from a working woman or denying her dues. In the last ten years, as women in Pakistan have come more into mainstream public life and joined politics and the workforce, many men—especially husbands—think it is their right to receive women’s earnings. We want to make sure that this doesn’t happen. If a woman goes to a court, the court will order that her money belongs to her only. If she has jewelry that another person is holding, the court will rule that it needs to be returned. If she has spent any money fighting a case, the court will grant her reimbursement. I wanted to include this monetary order because many women were not coming forward because they didn’t have the money or the mechanism to. In order to make women an effective force in the economic development of Pakistan, we have to make sure that first they are protected. Earnings should never be taken from women under the pretext that it doesn’t rightly belong to them.

It is worth noting that in this bill, there is not a single clause that mentions the word male or husband, or brother or father. It is only aggressor and aggrieved. The aggressor can be female, and subject to the same penalties.

These orders will be implemented by women’s protection officers on the ground, who are the people who are called when help or mediation is needed--they are female officers who will go to a house or workplace. The bill will also be implemented through the Violence Against Women Center, a one-stop-shop that houses the relevant departments under one roof: police, prosecution, medical, legal, forensics, psychologists, and shelters. When we were drafting this act, we were questioning why the conviction rate for violence against women in Punjab is only one-to-two percent. One issue was disconnect between departments. So we came up with a mechanism that effectively brings the services of all departments under one roof and connects them with a specialized software. With this software, police, prosecutors, and medical and legal experts are all connected. This is a brand new system the Special Monitoring Unit got developed—it is our brainchild. Now we have it in the Violence Against Women Center, and the next aim is to bring it to all police stations. Imagine the impact when all these departments can connect and talk to each other. The criminal prosecution will skyrocket.

The implementation mechanisms are the crown jewels of this bill. This is why the bill has gotten a lot of pushback—because people know that it will actually bite. This is not something that just gets passed, gets some applause, and then everything goes back to how it was.

A broad coalition of civil society groups, leaders of the opposition parties, and some Islamic scholars support the act. But a number of clerics have vocally opposed it. What is the role of religious bodies in determining the future of the bill?

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is a constitutional advising body, but only if the government seeks their advice. Their recommendations are not mandatory. But, over the course of time, a mentality developed that when the council says something is un-Islamic, people believed that it is to be implemented mandatorily even when there are divergent views within the council itself, as Islamic interpretations vary among different schools of thought. In order to get around this, I had to be careful and technical—once we had the bill drafted, we made sure that there was nothing un-Islamic in it. There is nothing un-Islamic about protecting women’s safety. Two of the prominent members of the CII said publicly that it was wrong for the council to call the act un-Islamic, and that they absolutely endorsed the bill. So there was a bit of fighting within the ranks.

Once the bill was passed, we called the fifteen ulema clerics of the council to the table to hear their observations, and, after two weeks of meeting, all they had were four observations. They could not prove that it was un-Islamic. We accommodated their observations into the rules—not into the act, because it didn’t need an amendment. For example, they said that if a husband and wife are having an issue, families should be given the chance to be involved in mediation. So we said that was fine, as long as both parties want family members to be there. But only given that the parents are not the ones who are forcing the issue in the first place, because, in a combined family system, sometimes it’s the parents who are provoking and urging someone to commit violence. If that’s the case, we are not going to involve them in the mediation. The trained district women’s protection officer will make these decisions. Now these ulemas are helping us implement the act and educating the public via sermons in mosques about how Islam strictly forbids violence.

There is a significant amount of discussion about the act serving as a deterrent to violence. In what ways is the regional government also engaging men and boys to build support for women’s rights and safety?

We have coupled the act with a focus on reaching the next generation. We successfully added a chapter on gender-based violence to the school curriculum for grades nine through twelve last year. The Chief Minister approved it and the chapters are in development right now, to be added to the social studies books and curricula of grades nine, ten, eleven, and twelve, focused on the rights of girls, how to approach authorities, and best practices in resolving conflicts rather than resorting to violence. For our next generation, in ten years from now, our hope is that they won’t turn toward violence to begin with. This curriculum change is a major accomplishment in Punjab, and we are the only province in Pakistan who have managed to get that done.

The recent documentary A Girl in the River, directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who recently visited your Special Monitoring Unit Law & Order Chief Minister’s Office, has brought international attention to the issue of violence against women in Pakistan. How have you seen the film contribute to public dialogue about violence against women, in Pakistan and around the world?

Fortunately, when her film came out, the Violence Against Women Center was already planned and we had started construction on the physical space in October, so things were already moving with the right gears. After her film came out, it was a blessing that brought everything together, as the act passed in the same month that she won the Oscar. Everything fell into place, and started a productive conversation between the right and the left wing, as well as in the public.

Right now, there is so much going on in Pakistan on other issues of violence, with the National Action Plan on terrorism and the ongoing fight against militancy. But no matter how much foreign aid money is sent, if social and political processes on the ground are not fixed then all money is going to go where it already goes, and we won’t see change in security or stability on the ground. If domestic processes are right and the U.S. supports the Pakistani government on positive legislation like the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, we can help people tackle the issues that affect them and affect stability on a daily basis. Women’s protection in their own homes and communities is connected to state stability. And 49 percent of the population is women, and they are all standing behind this legislation. Imagine when this starts to change their lives. The country will be able to accomplish much more. Pakistan is the first Islamic country to have such powerful legislation—and hopefully implementation—preventing and responding to violence against women. This can be used as an example around the world, and perhaps other countries will follow suit, particularly if the U.S. and other international actors stand behind us.

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