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A new deal for women

By Anwer Mooraj

This is definitely the first time during the tenure of the present government that a concerted and determined effort has been made in parliament to come to grips with the problems unleashed by the controversial Hudood ordinances.

The credit for this momentous and courageous move goes to the committee of nine PPP women members, who worked tirelessly and with considerable presence to present a draft of the Protection and Empowerment of Women Bill 2004.

To say that the draft met with fierce resistance would be an understatement. Serious objections were raised by not only the MMA, but also by some members of the Nawaz faction of the Muslim League, which ostensibly form part of the opposition in the National Assembly and the Senate.

However, the women’s group found a kindred spirit among some ladies of the treasury benches. And so, somewhat reluctantly, the group agreed to the suggestion of the prime minister’s adviser for women development, to agree to a deferment of the bill until April 13, so that a consensus could be developed among women from six political parties. The argument advanced was that there was a number of technical creases that needed looking into, and these could be ironed out through mutual consultation.

No commentator who has been closely following recent events in Islamabad seriously believes that the committee of nine will be successful, unless it enjoys the support of the treasury benches.

The deck has always been stacked against courageous men and women in this country who dared to stand against repression and injustice. They have had to fight not only against the collective male chauvinism of the ignorant and the calculated mendacity with which they continue to deny their womenfolk their rights, but also against the violent and the abusive, whose behaviour often drifts into that cretinous barbarism which results in domestic violence and death.

It is bad enough that antediluvian laws and an inbred bigotry militate against members of the weaker sex. But when people who run the government also connive to deny women their basic rights, what hope can there possibly be for the silent majority that forms 56 per cent of the population?

The Hudood Ordinances were introduced by that obscurantist dictator Zia-ul-Haq with devastating consequences for the women of this country. How else can one explain the fact that 86 per cent of women prisoners languishing in the country’s jails are there because of the ambiguities in these controversial ordinances, and not because they were guilty of having committed a crime? And yet when one of the stalwarts of the MMA heard about the draft bill, he produced the fire and brimstone of the early orthodox preacher and said that nobody can alter something prescribed by God!

A lot has been written about the proposed bill, but not too many people know just what it contains. It would be therefore interesting to take a look at some of the features and to demonstrate that there is nothing arcane or unconstitutional in the proposal. .

The document starts off by pointing out that while gender discrimination is prohibited by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is necessary to provide for the protection and empowerment of the women of Pakistan so that they can enjoy the right to life with dignity as equal citizens of Pakistan which is necessary for emancipating and uplifting the whole nation.

The document then spells out a number of things that have to be achieved to make the bill meaningful. The first places a number of responsibilities on the district government which is not used to working.

Primary education for all children under ten years of age should be made compulsory and with immediate effect, and that it would be the duty of every parent or guardian to enrol every child within one month of the coming into force of the act. Every district government would be bound to provide free primary education to every child resident in the district under the age of ten.

Each union council would be required to maintain a register of children under ten resident within the precincts of the council. At the expiry of one month from coming into force of this act the chairman of the council would be required to file a return with the district government containing the names and addresses of the children under the age of ten as per the census records, the school where such children are attending and the names and addresses of children under the age of ten who are not attending school.

The district government shall, within a week of receipt of the return, serve a notice upon the parent or guardian to enrol the child in the school specified in the notice which shall not be more than a distance of two miles from the residence of the child.

Any parent or guardian who fails to comply with the provisions of this section will be liable to mandatory imprisonment until the child is enrolled. The nazim of the union council who fails to file a return and the nazim of the district who violates this section will stand disqualified for election to the local bodies.

The federal public service commission and each provincial public service commission will establish a minimum of one-third recruitment of women with effect from January 1, 2005.

It was recommended that discrimination in pay on the basis of gender would be prohibited. Each and every employee whether in the public or the private sector will conform to the ILO Convention 100 prescribing equal pay for equal work. The chief executive of any private employee or head of department of any public sector organization or government, would be liable to a fine of 100,000 rupees and one year’s rigorous imprisonment in case of transgression of the ILO Convention 100.

Now comes the bit that will throw a spanner into the works. Domestic violence including honour killing or bodily harm will be punishable in the same manner as personal injury or culpable homicide under the Pakistan Penal Code. A husband or relative of the husband of a woman who subjects the woman to violence or to cruelty which may be mental or physical shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to a fine of 500,000 rupees.

Each bench of the high court shall assign one judge to try offences under this act. The single judge of the high court so appointed will enjoy the powers of a judicial magistrate and/or court of sessions. This section ends on a positive note with a repeal of the Hudood Ordinances.

The husband of a woman or in his absence the eldest male resident of a household will be held responsible in all cases of stove burning and liable to grievous harm or culpable homicide under the Pakistan Penal Code of 1860.

The mother of a minor shall be presumed to be the natural guardian unless the welfare of the minor, for reasons to be recorded by the Guardian and Wards Court, dictate otherwise. There is also a section on a woman being allowed to marry a person of her own choice, without undue influence, coercion or duress being imposed, with specific duties being imposed on the nikah registrar, and the fixing of the haq meher in consonance with the financial status of the husband.

And finally there are sections on property rights, the participation of women in public life and the protection of women prisoners through the appointment of additional inspectors general of police for women’s wards, who will ensure that adequate arrangements will be made for the accommodation and education of minor children of all women prisoners.

Even if the women on the treasury benches and the six political parties meet the PPP legislators half way, it would be a great achievement. But a little help from the top always helps. Whatever people might say about the president, I still believe he is a liberal, secular and progressive head of state. The ground has already been laid, and the spade work has been completed. All it needs is a little nod and a nudge from the man in battle fatigues. Surely that isn’t asking for too much!

Source: Dawn