After much hesitation, the National Assembly has finally passed the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill, 2011. Once the Senate passes it and the president signs it, a minimum legal benchmark will be available to penalise those who deny a woman her right to inheritance or those who engage in practices like wani, swara or badla-i-salah, all of which force women and girls into marriage to settle personal, family or tribal disputes.
This passage of the legislation has been rightly lauded as a show of parliament’s collective resolve to prevent longstanding gender injustices in Pakistan. Some legal experts are however pointing out that not much consideration has gone into drafting the legislation. They are troubled by the bill’s prescriptions of making inheritance and marriage disputes, till now a civil matter, into a criminal offence. At the procedural level, it has been further pointed out that making inheritance-related offences effective from the date of the death of the deceased is unrealistic since this does not take into account delays which usually occur during the process by, which an inheritance is divided.
Similarly, it has been questioned how the proposed law will distinguish between forced marriages and arranged marriages gone wrong, if women unsatisfied in the latter situation file criminal complaints claiming coercion and seek to initiate criminal proceedings against their families or in-laws.
Conversely, it has been pointed out that, in its present form, the bill is not comprehensive. For instance, sung-chati, which is another form of child marriage, has not been mentioned in the bill as a punishable offence. Other critics also consider the overall legislation as being too narrowly focused on punitive aspects, without taking into account the reason why many women are still unable to report offences against them in the first place. Their criticism is based on their opinion that the bill does not propose an adequate mechanism to ensure more effective reporting of such crimes to ensure that offences against women reach a court of law.
Ideally the draft of this important bill should have been shared with a broader range of relevant stakeholders working on gender equity issues, and even with lawyers from the lower courts who have practical experience of dealing with these cases. Had this been done, the above-mentioned flaws and loopholes could have been removed.
The passage of the bill in the National Assembly, after two failed attempts, itself marks a positive step towards recognising the fact that women in Pakistani society need legal protection to safeguard their rights. Furthermore, it takes tangible steps towards addressing gender-based disparities due to which so many Pakistani women continue to suffer.
Subsequent to overcoming the final drafting and legislative hurdles, it will be even more important to ensure that the sanctions laid down in the law are put into effect. Doing so will, in turn, require contending with a range of inadequacies within our justice system, especially in the lower courts. Moreover, the police and patwaris, who are the most relevant officials when it comes to dealing with forced marriages and inheritance issues, must be made aware of the contents of the bill so that they can play a more proactive role in ensuring that the available provisions are enforced to improve the situation of women in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2011.