How does the law protect women?

It is no hidden truth that the legal system has long proven itself to fail citizens, especially women, with the massive gaps it has when it comes to harassment and violence laws. Yet the question remains, does the law protect women? Legislation does protect women but there is subsequent illiteracy on legal matters; on the rights women have, on the remedies they can sought and least know, on how to approach the law.

In a retreat organised by Lincoln Corners called “Peacetivity” aimed to help women on dealing with trauma, how to approach the law and healing, women of all ages from diverse backgrounds partook in interactive sessions. Sessions were curated with focus on educating women on their legal rights, the effects of trauma and healing with meditation and sound therapy.

Types of violence

A practice prevalent in the society has garnered more attention in the past decade or more as women break free from being shackled in abusive homes. The common school of thought limits domestic violence to physical abuse, which the law debunks and recognises multiple types of violence condemnable including intimidation, psychological abuse, harassment, economic abuse (denied access to finance as a form of control), wrongful confinement etc. In a virtual session with Shmyla Khan from Digital Rights Foundation, she gives an extensive talk on what the legal system says on domestic violence, rights within the legislation and the legal recourse.

The law on domestic violence

There has been long withstanding resistance to domestic violence laws to accept state policing in homes but it has been recognised as a reality in the last decade and consequently, multiple amendments have been made in the law. A result of the patriarchy is the mindset that the “outside” is not safe for women, hence the widespread adoption of the myth that the home is safe terming it “a safe, protective space.” Pakistan Penal Code criminalises rape and other gender based violence, except domestic violence. But every province has its own domestic violence legislation. The legislation in Sindh is known to be most effective, at least on paper. KPK does not have any provincial laws on DV, bills have been proposed two to three times but have failed to pass in the face of extreme opposition. “Criminalising a prevalent practice is very symbolic; it lends a level of seriousness to it and labels it intolerable,” says Khan.

The legal recourse

Step one is to file a First Investigation Report at a police station. It’s no secret that the practice is not black and white and the process of filing an FIR can be traumatising for women. Often the police is reluctant to file an FIR, which is anticipated by the law, in which case the victim can file an application to the Magistrate court. The most basic narrative that is often a hindrance in the course of seeking justice is the normalisation of DV in our society and attempts to report it are met with “ye ghar ka mamla hai.” Marital rape, however, is not criminalised specifically. Across the world, it is being recogised that consent is in not inherent in a marriage and it can be reported under sexual assault under DV laws.

Legal aid

Hiring a lawyer to assist in filing an FIR is another option. There are a few services that provide legal services without a fee and the state too is obligated to providing legal aid to people who do not have the resources to hire one. Even though as per the legislation, the filed suit must come to verdict is 90 days, lack of implementation more often stretches cases of violence into years due to the huge volume of cases in the lower courts. A medico legal report from a government hospital is a crucial element for the court to rely on as evidence. Law enforcements are not very gender sensitive and a victim of domestic violence may be very vulnerable in this situation.

Roles of shelters

A government shelter must offer holistic remedies to victims, some of which include medico legal examination, access to legal aid, psychological support and counseling as well as shelter. The Punjab law envisions protection centers but it has only been passed in the Multan district, the gaps are so severe that somebody in Lahore cannot use this law. Sindh does not have a notification issue but once again, protective committees have failed to assemble and execute either due to lack of resources, opposition or implementation. The institutions to protect women from this fateful reality are rather limited in Pakistan but NPOs have stepped in to fill this gap. Government dar-ul-aman have a drawback that a woman cannot enter without lodging an FIR first.

Can abuse be reported after years?

There is no statute of limitation for domestic violence as such in the number of years but only theoretically. In practice, there are multiple issues starting with lack of physical evidence. However, it can be pursed to an FIR stage.

In public discourse, the tolerance for violence has reduced and the media is also becoming sensitised towards it. In the last 10 years, there has been notable progress on this. There are specific laws for DV, although there are a lot of issues in implementation but it’s perceivable or (maybe too hopeful) that they may be ironed out in a few years.