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No reprieve for women

By: I.A. Rehman

WOMEN have had a greater than usual share of the headlines these past couple of weeks. The rhetoric in their favour had a pleasant flavour and several legal initiatives were reported. At the same time, women continued to be victims of unspeakably heinous violence.

A fortnight ago, women activists from South Asia met in Islamabad to think of eliminating violence against them. The guests sympathised with the hosts for being the only country in the region without a law to deal with domestic violence. The chastisement should hopefully be for the last time. Nothing should delay enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill that had been adopted by the National Assembly and allowed to lapse due to the government’s criminal negligence – it was simply not sent to the Senate.

More recently, the National Assembly adopted a bill to remove the hitch to the operation of the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act of 1996, a technical difficulty that should have been resolved much earlier. It is much to be regretted that the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill could not be adopted because in the first instance its language was said to be flawed. When the bill came up again on Tuesday it was put off until the next session after a squabble that did not add to the credit of the august house.

This is an extremely important and unexceptionable bill. It proposes tough punishments for giving women in forced marriage to meet civil liability or to compound a crime and for staging a woman’s marriage to the Qur’an. Perhaps the most significant part of the measure is the proposal to award heavy punishment to anyone who deprives a woman of her inheritance.

That this bill should run into trouble in an assembly dominated by landed interests is not surprising. As the Law and Justice Commission had put it quite some time ago women are denied their share of inheritance, especially landed property, though both the law and religion sanction their entitlement. Whatever the pretext used by the opponents of the measure, the landlords’ determination to deny women a share in land is the real cause of their obduracy. It will not be easy to ensure that women inherit land in all cases (in some cases they do so even now). But it is a battle worth fighting.

The affair throws light on the poor management of the private members’ day over the past many years. This particular bill was pending since 2008. Had it been debated earlier its angularities could have been taken care of long ago.

While these somewhat encouraging proceedings were going on in the National Assembly, violence against women continued unabated. The number of all cases of violence against women registered an increase, especially in Punjab. A woman was burnt alive, little girls were killed after rape, a woman was killed for money and another for ‘ghairat’. A policeman, who is supposed to protect people, gouged out the eyes of a woman who refused to leave her husband for him. The count and the increasing variety of crimes against women are incalculable though no longer incredible.

Everybody says that laws alone cannot end violence against women nor can they guarantee that women will get their rightful share of inheritance. Men know scores of ways of persuading women to surrender their right to land in favour of their ‘loving’ brothers. It will be said that a social movement to purge the men’s minds of their hostility towards, and fears of, women is needed. True, but properly conceived laws are needed not only to punish the wrongdoer but also to act as catalysts for change.

The obstacles the government has itself raised to a decisive push for women’s rights include its failure to include in the fundamental rights Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says:

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.

The reasons for the state’s reservations on this article are known and they detract something from all special laws made to protect women’s rights, from the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 1929 to the Women Protection Act of 2004.

But this only underlines the need for extraordinary efforts to promote justice for women through education, awareness and imaginatively structured advocacy. That this essential development work is being ignored can be judged from the policy of starving the Ministry of Women Development of development funds. The allocation for the Women Development Division in 2010-11 was Rs 153m (as compared to Rs886m for Livestock and Dairy Development Division) but in the revised estimates
the figure fell to Rs73m, that is less that 50 per cent of the original allocation. For 2011-12, no money has been allocated because the subject has been transferred, and rightly so, to the provinces.

Regardless of how the provinces plan women development projects, the National Commission on the Status of Women has a heavy agenda. The commission should indeed become the main agency for research on ways of liberating women from retrogressive traditions, suggesting essential reforms in the education and information sectors, and helping the Council of Common Interests to guide and evaluate the work of provincial governments for making the status of women equal to that of men (except for their politics of pelf and criminal behaviour).

Perhaps the most essential task before all those who are interested in justice for women is to convince the myopic policymakers, administrators and purse-bearers that women development is neither an act of charity nor routine welfarism; it is an investment in society’s economic progress and intellectual enrichment, and in its much-needed change of direction from militancy to peace.

Tailpiece: Gen Zia was obsessed with the idea of being recognised as an intellectual of stature (there was no shortage of sycophants to gratify his infantile fancies). He especially craved honorary doctorates, particularly from foreign universities.

He was attracted by Thai universities because he thought the king of Thailand was as completely absolute a ruler as he was of Pakistan. But the king knew the main university in his country was run by academics who did not take orders from anyone. So he asked another university to confer the degree of doctorate on Ziaul Haq. Somehow, the fact became known. The king was in for a surprise. The university refused to honour Zia, and the reason it offered was similar to Pakistani democrats’ charge against the dictator.

What a fall, dear old University of Karachi!

Source: Dawn