This bears repetition: domestic abuse is a crime.
And it's unlike any other crime. It's inflicted by the people that are supposed to be your sanctuary in this cruel world. It's a secret you keep from your closest friends.
But it's not a secret that domestic abuse is rife in our society where women are expected to endure bad marriages or even brutality to respect their family's honour and a culture of silence discourages survivors from coming forward. In our culture, marriage and a nuclear family unit is the ultimate goal. We work out our issues in private and stay together for the sake of the children.
Every day, on any given news site, you will see multiple stories about violence against women. The prevalence of honour killings in the country can be fairly described as an epidemic. The following are every day occurrences in the news:
That said, Pakistan does have legislation in place for domestic abuse. Sindh enacted its Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2013, Balochistan passed a similar law in 2014 and Punjab passed the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016. Unfortunately, there is no law in KPK at the moment that protects survivors of domestic abuse due to pushback from religious authorities. While legislators deserve credit for enacting pro women laws, it would be premature to celebrate just yet.
There's a difference between legislation and implementation. All institutions like the police, judiciary, even lawyers need to make a collaborative effort for this tool to be effective. and And of course, in order to make use of these laws, one must have access to legal aid. Free or affordable legal aid is virtually absent in Pakistan and that's one of the many issues we face when it comes to the enforcement of our laws.
What qualifies as domestic abuse by law?
Talking to Images, lawyer Sara Malkani shares, "Domestic violence is defined broadly in each of these laws, I would say. It includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, verbal and also economical abuse. It covers domestic relationships and that includes your spouse, siblings, your parents, etc."
This means that the law recognises that domestic abuse goes beyond crimes of violence and includes victims who are psychologically coerced and manipulated, as well as those who have no control of their finances. In an episode of Aagahi, SOC Films highlighted the types of abuse included in domestic violence:
"The Sindh and Balochistan laws criminalise domestic abuse, so they set forth criminal penalties including imprisonment or fines. Under the Punjab legislation, it's treated as a civil infraction but it prescribes certain preventive and remedial measures such as protection orders, financial compensation; those exist in the Sindh and Balochistan laws also." While it seems that penalising the crime would be a better form of justice, our criminal system is in dire need of reform and it seems to show little results when it comes to convictions.
Why is the law ineffective?
Legislation is just the first step. But how do we really get it to work? In the six years since the Sindh law was passed, there has only been one conviction. Let that sink in. In an earlier piece for Dawn, Sara had said that some of the most crucial factors leading to the conviction were strong medical evidence and support from family and friends.
"There are a number of barriers to implementing the law. It's very challenging for women and children to bring these cases before the police or court and try and involve your family members, it's very difficult. Even those who do end up reporting it they encounter obstacles like it's not taken very seriously, it's considered a domestic dispute and not a crime so the authorities are less likely to investigate or register an FIR," explained Sara.
Now, the law allows you to skip this step and directly go to the magistrate and file a petition with the court. But of course, then there are barriers to that also. You have to get a lawyer to do that and access to legal help is limited and virtually impossible for children.
Add to all this the usual delays with our trials and it becomes very difficult for survivors of abuse to pursue cases for such a long time so that's a deterrent.
Sara adds: "There are a few mechanisms under the law that are meant to help women and children with remedies and taking these cases to court. Like protection officers were supposed to be appointed under the 2013 law that were going to help victims get legal aid, medical aid, facilitate access to shelter but six years on, they still haven't done that."
Some shelters and organisations that women can turn to if they find themselves in a volatile domestic situation are Legal Aid Society (Lahore), AGHS Legal Aid Cell (Lahore), Panah (Karachi), Dastak (Lahore), Violence Against Women Center (Multan) and Women Shelter Organisation (Faisalabad).
She also highlighted that one of the most important remedies available under the law is a protection order, which prohibits the abuser from making any contact with the petitioner.
What can we do?
Do these policies then need amendment?
"Some laws definitely need improvement. There's confusion about the relationship between codified law and religious personal laws. They tend to contradict sometimes like the Child Marriage Law isn't consistent with religious personal laws about puberty being marriageable age. So how are we supposed to reconcile that? It needs to be clarified," revealed Sara.
"That said, The Domestic Violence law is actually quite clear.There are some parts where some of the language is a little vague and could use expansion but that's not the main barrier to its implementation, I think there's lots of practical barriers that affect certain protections that have been provided under the law."
If we want to see a qualitative change in the dispension of justice, our law needs more clarity for starters but we also need housing/shelter programs for victims, police authorities and the judiciary need to stop treating these cases as "private family matters" and officials must receive gender sensitivity training, not to mention, women and children need access to legal aid.
Sara also emphasised on the importance of free legal representation.
"That's something governments need to take seriously especially when you're passing pro-women legislation, you need to at least think about how women will access justice. In absence of legal aid supported and funded government, it's an uphill battle that would be very difficult."
Ab Aur Nahin is a directory for women looking for pro bono legal representation and psychological counselling regarding gender-based violence; the website links survivors to the resources that they may not have access to otherwise such as experienced lawyers and professional counsellors to combat sexual harassment, violence or abuse.