The Protection of Women against Violence Act falls short of its objective

by Nihal Ates

Pakistan Today | 9 March, 2016

A London-based independent domestic violence advocate hopes national legislation won’t repeat the Punjab Act’s mistakes

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy intimated at the Oscars that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will legislate at the national level to address honour killings. One hopes that the legislation he plans to pass is of a higher standard than the recently passed Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act, which has been hyperbolically hailed by Pakistani newspapers as a ‘comprehensive protection to women against a range of crimes’, as ‘making all crimes against the women [sic] an offence,’ and as ‘a historic bill to protect women against all evils and crimes.’

To its credit, the Act introduces GPS trackers. It recognises cybercrime. It recognises psychological abuse, though it seems that abuse alone is not enough but defined in terms of symptoms that must manifest themselves physically in the victim. It introduces a toll free number for domestic violence victims to call, and it requires the government to establish shelter homes and centres where mediation can be facilitated, though it does not specify what an acceptable minimum number should be.

Yet in other domains, the Act falls short both in outlook as well as in philosophy.

First of all, the definition of domestic violence (as opposed to violence) excludes women who are abused by men in the same house but are not blood-related or married to them at the time of violence. The definition of dependent children meanwhile, excludes girls of all ages, boys over the age of 12 and young people with special needs. For this reason, it is unclear in the Act whether daughters can receive shelter with their mothers.

The Act introduces protection orders preventing the defendant from communicating with the victim, entering their work place, or aiding and abetting violence. It could be more explicit in also preventing third parties doing the same on their behalf.

The Act seems to suggest that in order to access emergency protection or shelter, the victim must make a complaint to the court. However, with punishment in the form of imprisonment or a significant financial penalty for filling a false complaint, victims may hesitate to make such a complaint. Often under threats from the defendant, harassment from family or due to insufficient external social support and financial dependence on the perpetrator, victims will retract their complaints, contradicting their earlier statements or claiming that their original statement was false. Legitimate victims under this Act then could be criminalised and re-victimised.

Further, what remains unclear is whether the at-risk victim is able to gain immediate and effective access to protection, the provision for an interim order following a complaint notwithstanding.

The Act introduces Women Protection Officers (WPOs), a role that I initially thought was similar to my own in London. But whereas I work with the victims of domestic violence and their children at the point they are considering fleeing from domestic violence, the Act seems to create officers who work for the victim – Xena: Warrior Princess who have been given the ‘power to […] at any time, enter in any place or house for the purpose of rescuing an aggrieved person [sic]’.

This power is problematic. The forceful entry of a protection officer could aggravate an already emotional domestic situation. Secondly, while the Act does provide for the police to assist Women Protection Officers, if a situation was so dire that a victim of domestic violence needed rescuing, it should be the responsibility of armed police officers to respond, with the unarmed protection officer close to the scene to respond to the victim once she is out of imminent physical danger. If male police officers are seen as part of the problem, the police force needs to be bulked up with more armed female police officers. My job as an independent domestic violence advocate in the UK is a lot more limited in scope and sustainable for both me and the victim. Mine is a role to empower victims: help them find ways of resisting violence and enforcing boundaries, nurturing trust in themselves, supporting them to rebuild self-identity and self-worth, challenging myths, and fostering victim-centred support.

Fortunately, the Act shows a humility that is not apparent in the media. It provides for amendments in the next two years to remove difficulties and give effect to the Act not inconsistent with its philosophy. The Act must be perceived as an imperfect first step towards guaranteeing the fundamental human right of protection from violence, and not as a fait accompli. The Punjab government therefore ought to fix these ambiguities and mistakes, and the national legislature should take note not to repeat them.

Nihal Ates is an independent domestic violence advocate in London.

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