The additional law secretary was hard to please. What was supposed to be a consultation among parliamentarians and activists on an upcoming bill against domestic violence, turned out to be a heated discussion as Aslam Sheikh frowned, raised his eyebrows and his objections.
“We will not allow [through] anything derogatory against the law,” said Sheikh sternly when debating the age of majority or ‘legal adulthood’ in the bill. Reading from a pink book of constitutional laws, he said that the age for girls should be 16 and for boys 18 years, ignoring an advocate’s explanation that according to the international human rights law, children are defined as those under 18 years of age.
But it wasn’t only the age that Sheikh bickered over. His frequent declarations on what was “not right” in the bill annoyed the women parliamentarians so much that a few of them openly said that his arguments were ‘baseless’. Many argued back and some rolled their eyes and put their hands to their heads in frustration. The social activists gathered for the Wednesday meeting included Aurat Foundation Resident Director Mahnaz Rahman, the regional coordinator for their legislative watch programme for women’s empowerment Rubina Brohi, War Against Rape Director Sara Zaman and advocate Maliha Zia Lari. They came face to face with the minister of women’s development, Tauqeer Fatima Bhutto, and parliamentarians such as Kulsoom Chandio, Shama Mithani, Zareen Majeed, Humaira Alwani, Farheen Mughal, Nusrat Abbasi.
The aim of the consultation held at the Sindh Assembly, was to propose one bill that combines five separately submitted bills on domestic violence prepared by parliamentarians Farheen Mughal, Shama Mithani, Heer Soho, Humaira Alwani, Bilquis Mukhtar, and a draft one proposed by civil society, the Aurat Foundation and the National Commission on the Status of Women. Advocate Maliha Zia Lari started reading and comparing Humaira Alwani’s private bill called ‘Domestic Violence against Women and Children (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2008’ with the one proposed by civil society.
“There are similarities between all the bills. We will include definitions from every bill, and then propose one bill,” she suggested.
Among the women, there seemed to be no beef on whose bill would be presented in the house of elected representatives. In fact, there was consensus that bits and pieces should be included from everyone’s bill to make a joint bill.
It seemed that the only disagreements came from the additional law secretary.
As Lari spoke on the definitions, he persisted with the definition of a domestic relationship, asking her where she got her definition from. The lawyer explained that she had used international law. But the secretary was not satisfied.
This prompted MPA Farheen Mughal to bluntly ask: “Why don’t you tell us the proper definition.” When Sheikh answered that this needed time, MPA Nusrat Abbasi snapped at him, “Bahis fazool hai” (Arguing is futile with you). MPA Humaira Alwani demanded, “How much time you need. Tell us the definition now.”
Another argument broke out when Lari asked which court – family or criminal – should the domestic violence victims be taken to? Civil society members felt that domestic violence is a crime, and should be referred to a court that worked in this ambit as such. To this, the irritated Sheikh retorted, “It should either be civil or criminal law. Decide on one.”
His objections did not desist even after Sindh Assembly Deputy Speaker Shehla Raza turned up.
He was the most frustrated when he asked why should victims of domestic violence go straight to court for their cases. “Why should they disturb the court,” he asked. “She should go to the police station first.” This set the parliamentarians on fire as they spoke against how the police harassed the women and pressed them to bury the matter by settling it at home. The police are also loathe to register FIRs. Shehla Raza’s thumping of the table ended the argument. “We need to focus on the bill. We need to simplify [matters],” she said, referring to the first option of sending the women to the police.
Finally, Sheikh gave up, shaking his head and asking, “Where is this committee going?”
The group also discussed whether another bill is needed given that the Senate had already passed one. Lari clarified that the one passed by the Senate applies to Islamabad only. Also, domestic violence cannot be applied to domestic servants as they are not a part of a household.
In the end, Tauqeer Fatima Bhutto suggested that more meetings were needed, with the social welfare department, human rights ministry, law departments.
“We will bring a consolidated bill to the next session of the Sindh Assembly,” she announced, assuring that the male parliamentarians who have previously joked about it would be serious and the whole house would pass it.
“When the bill is introduced, the number of cases of domestic violence will go down. I would then want to bring on a bill on acid burns and another one on trafficking.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2012.