Broken Promises: The Punjab Women’s Protection Act

It’s a shame, but not much of a surprise, that eight months after the passage of the Punjab government’s Protection of Women Act, it has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately this is illustrative of the fact that when it comes to women’s empowerment, the government talks a good talk, but tangible and measurable follow through is hard to find.

The Act was to base its foundations in a system of Violence Against Women Centers, or VAWCs for short. The VAWCs were envisioned as a one-stop shop where women who suffered domestic violence, rape, or any other kind of assault could come and be treated like humans and survivors instead of animals and criminals. Women could find shelter close to their homes rather than having to go to a bigger city, as VAWCs would be set up in every district in Punjab.

Poor women victims of violence do not have the funds or the freedom to run here and there to get their complaints redressed, their medical and psychological needs attended to, and the legal process streamlined and made easy for them. The VAWCs would provide medical services and on the spot first aid for victims. They could file FIRs and medico-legal statements at an on-site police desk. They could obtain hard-to-find legal and psychological counseling services. A toll-free number provided for complaints and investigation services were also planned to be housed under the VAWC’s roof.

Yet the Bill, passed in February, is still to be “notified” for implementation, whatever that means in the strange language of Pakistan’s bureaucrats and government offices.  Foreign diplomats and the heads of international aid agencies were invited to the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Violence Against Women Center, but today, based on Imran Gabol’s report, we find that the inaugural VAWC, for which Rs. 40 billion were allocated, has yet to be completed, with a projected completion date of December 2016 at the earliest.

Last November, I was in the Hague for a global conference on Women’s Shelters, and I was fortunate enough to interview the renowned lawyer and women’s rights activist Hina Jilani (Asma Jehangir’s sister). We spoke about the VAWC, and she told me she hadn’t even been invited to its inauguration, despite her decades of work in establishing women’s shelters and advocating for the survivors of domestic violence.

She didn’t express much optimism in the government’s ability to actually implement and successfully run a program of this scale. Her doubts seem to have been borne out today, in light of Resident Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation Mumtaz Mughal’s observations that the Bill can’t truly be implemented until and unless the first VAWC is actually completed. Furthermore, she said the government didn’t have enough funds to establish such costly centers in every district, and that the currently existing Darul Aman shelters were being “upgraded” to fulfill the government’s promise.

This is the problem in Pakistan when it comes to the “uplift” of women. The government promises a lot, but delivers nearly nothing. Even the laws that have been passed for women’s protection come with catches, loopholes, and frankly a lack of willpower to make them strong and active. And the idea of a Protection For Women’s act still remains nascent in the face of the overwhelming belief in Pakistani society that women can and should be beaten and abused in order to keep them in line, in order to maintain a man’s authority, and more than often enough, just because a man feels like it.

This is why in Pakistan we need much independent research on the actual effectiveness of these bills, these acts, these organizations. We cannot trust that the government is doing anything more than floating big ideas that it has no true intention of making reality.

This holds true even in the case of BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program, run by the very capable and hardworking Marvi Memon (a personal childhood friend of mine), which is by all accounts proving successful in giving income support to the poorest women of Pakistan. BISP’s transparency and credibility will be strengthened if there is independent research and assessment conducted by a variety of groups: gender researchers, economic thinktanks, donor agencies, and independent journalists.

For every promise, there needs to be accountability, otherwise we can relegate the Punjab Women’s Protection Act to that stuck drawer where all the other protections promised to Pakistan’s women lie and gather dust.

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