“Domestic violence is a big issue in the Punjab, but there hasn’t been a law on it until now,” says Mrs Mumtaz Mughal, Resident Director of the Aurat Foundation. “So when women go to the police station they are told to go back to their home and accept the violence.”
With over 9,000 reported cases in Punjab province every year, civil society organisations had been unsuccessfully campaigning for legislation covering domestic violence for a decade. “At the provincial level there was a lack of political will on women-related legislation,” Summaya Yousaf of women’s rights group Bedari explains. “We didn’t have the knowledge or the capacity to understand the Assembly and conduct really effective lobbying.”
Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) was able to assist by giving women’s rights groups access to the Provincial Assembly of Punjab for the first time. Instead of focusing on the Assembly’s small women’s caucus, civil society organisations were given the opportunity to engage with its male parliamentarians, allowing groups like the Aurat Foundation to lobby more effectively for specific, targeted legislation. Standing committees were engaged, particularly the Assembly’s social welfare and gender mainstreaming committees. Relationships were also brokered with the Assembly’s secretariat, including the Speaker’s office and legislation branch.
“We thank the Westminster Foundation,” Mrs Mughal says. “They provided a full avenue to build linkages to the secretariat, changing the civil society approach to build a close link to the Assembly and change our engagement strategy.”
Together the CSOs, with technical assistance from WFD, put forwards a draft bill. At this stage the relationships cultivated by the Aurat Foundation and its allies became critical. Some MPAs examining the bill closely in standing committee were concerned that a provision which allowed uniformed police officers to enter the homes of at-risk women could breach privacy. Mrs Mughal was invited by the committee to give expert advice– a rare event, as external experts are not usually consulted at this stage of the legislative process in Punjab.
Mrs Mughal argued that women’s security was paramount. “We guided our members that this is not the issue of privacy because the state is responsible for the scrutiny and safety of any human being,” she recalls. “We asked them that a woman protection officer – not uniformed – can have the authority to go to the home.” This amendment was accepted and formed part of the bill, which eventually passed into law on 29 February 2016.
This was a big moment for all the civil society organisations who had campaigned for the law for so many years. “Legislation is the first step towards a just society,” Ms Yousaf says. “The law itself is a long-term process, but it makes clear that if you hit or slap or control your wife or your daughter or your sister then you will be punished.”
Mrs Mughal recalls sitting in the Speaker’s Office with other CSO members and WFD’s Country Representative as the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015 became law. It covers a range of offences, from stalking and cybercrime to emotional, economic and psychological abuse, and provides for the implementation of residence, protection and monetary court orders to protect women. “I was very happy and we were able to celebrate a big achievement,” Mrs Mughal says. “We were thankful – but also aware there are still a number of challenges for us.”
Securing budgetary allocations for the construction of Violence Against Women Centres across Punjab’s 36 districts is set to be particularly challenging; each costs more than 400 million rupees (£2.9 million). State funding has already been released for one district in South Punjab, which will act as a pilot scheme as part of the Act’s phased implementation. But as the Aurat Foundation and other organisations continue to campaign on behalf of women facing domestic violence, they will use the relationships they have established with politicians in the province’s Assembly.
“We need to be selective in the issues we put forwards to the Assembly,” Ms Yousaf says. “We’ve learned we cannot find the solution to issues in isolation: sometimes we need the support of Assembly members, and sometimes they need our support to be briefed on issues. We complement each other’s work.” The Domestic Violence Act is a result of that engagement – civil society and Assembly members brought together by WFD. As this continues it will lead to “good governance”, Ms Yousaf says.
That is WFD’s aim in Pakistan, a country on the path to an inclusive democracy after 2013 saw the first ever transition of power between civilian governments at the federal level. By working to create effective provincial assemblies that apply checks and balance on the federal state, Pakistan can build strong parliamentary systems which benefit all citizens. WFD seeks to support this by helping the provincial assemblies generate better policy and represent groups of citizens – including women – more effectively.
In the meantime, vulnerable women’s lives are set to benefit from this engagement. As the focus turns to implementation of the new law, Mrs Mughal hopes progress can be made quickly so that those facing abuse “can live in a violence-free environment in her home”.