THE BLOG
09/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Domestic Abuse Law Gives Pakistani Women Hope

I remembered my cousin, Salma, as being vivacious and coquettish, always laughing. A petite woman, she dressed in bright colors, her hands perfectly manicured, her long fingernails painted red, and was known for her fabulous cooking. When I last saw her at a family dinner hosted by her mother, my maternal aunt, I was shocked. Now close to fifty years old, Salma began to hyperventilate and mumble incoherently, her eyes becoming increasingly glazed as guests arrived. Soon she withdrew into her mother's bedroom from where we heard her retching noisily. At first, there were attempts at polite conversation which petered into awkward silence and then, eventually a sigh of relief as she was led out of the house by her brother, her eyes downcast in shame, as her sisters looked at her in revulsion. Salma's melodramatics continue, said one sister.

My cousin was late to marry at twenty-three. Suitors came, saw, and rejected her because she was too short, too talkative or due to her lower-middle class background, she did not hold the promise of a substantial dowry. Her family wed her to the first man who proposed. Ten months later, she had delivered a baby boy, much to her husband's delight. Soon after, their relations began to degenerate. Salma's husband found that in his meager income, he could not cope with the added responsibility. That's when the beatings began. Battered black and blue, she asked the elders of the family to intervene. My uncle had one conversation with her husband after which she was left to deal with her fate. After a year, her husband left Pakistan to find work in Hong Kong, and a few months later, he disappeared. Salma waited for seven years, sought an annulment, and went to work at a bank to support herself and her son. However, in Pakistani cities, it is rare for a single woman to live on her own, and so she remained in her brother's home.

Several years passed, and Salma introduced a suitor to her family. He was over a decade older than her, and was a widower who had three adult children. My aunt was relieved. But Salma's story did not get any better. Not only did her new husband beat her so did his two teenage sons. Her son from her first marriage was also a victim to the violence at home. This time around there was no attempt at mediation. I think what really broke Salma was that her teenage son, a witness and recipient of violence all his life, now regularly beats her too.

Domestic violence and violence against women is common in Pakistan. The Daily Times reports that according to the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, it is on the rise. The non-governmental organization's scheduled press statement, released every three months by their Burn Unit and Monitoring Cell showed that 122 women were burnt near or in Lahore between April and June 2009, either by being set on fire or by having acid thrown on them. The number is almost double that recorded during the first three months of the year, as the AGHS recorded 68 burn victims between January and March 2009.

Many of these attackers are from within the home - most often husbands who claim to be suspicious that their wives may be cheating on them and sometimes, in-laws who want more dowry money.

Every year Minority Rights Group International publishes a report titled Peoples Under Threat, identifying those groups or peoples around the world most at risk of genocide, mass killing or other systematic violent repression. In the latest listing, published July 2009, Pakistan makes it to the top ten with minorities assessed as under greater danger than a year ago.

Human rights group Amnesty International claims that "women and girls suffered human rights violations at the hands of the state and, in the absence of appropriate government action, in the community, including 'honor' killings, forced marriages, rape and domestic violence."

Last week, the National Assembly passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill. It now needs to be cleared by the Senate and the President to become law.

According to the bill, domestic violence includes -- but is not limited to -- 'all intentional acts of gender-based or other physical or psychological abuse committed by an accused against women, children or other vulnerable persons, with whom the accused person is or has been in a domestic relationship'.

Members of the legal community think this is a move in the right direction. Barrister Shahida Jamil, former Minister of Women's Development, said, "It's a good step. What remains to be seen is the implementation."

One of the potential problems with the bill is that under this law, protection committees - each consisting of female councilors, a female SHO, a sub-divisional police officer and a protection officer - would be set up by provincial governments.

Barrister Jamil went on to say, "The police need to be trained to deal with these issues, and that could take a long time."

In Pakistan, there is a general mistrust of the police with their heavy-handedness, lack of training and education. In fact, it is frequently the police that are responsible for the most brutal crimes. Just last month, a 3-year-old girl, Sana, was allegedly raped, murdered and thrown into a sewer by a couple of police constables in the city of Karachi.

Another issue is that though the law may exist, it does not necessarily mean women will come forward and speak out. The problem of domestic violence is a global one, and the majority of cases go unreported. In the United States, President Barack Obama has appointed for the first time, Lynn Rosenthal as the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. In third world countries such as Pakistan, domestic violence is a huge problem.

At the moment, however, Pakistani humanitarian agencies and women's rights groups are cautiously celebrating.

"This is very good news. Introducing a law against domestic violence was long a demand for this country's women," said Farzana Bari, a women's activist told the Associated Press that as many as one in three women were subject to domestic violence.

It may be too late for my cousin, Salma, but others could stand a chance.

(Salma is a fictional name given to a real character to protect her identity.)

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