Pakistan province passes landmark law protecting women against violence

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Pakistan’s largest province on Wednesday gave unprecedented protection to female victims of violence, in a bid to stem a rising tide of gender-related abuse in a country ranked as the world’s third most dangerous place for women.

Women sell bangles at a stall outside the Sufi shrine of Baba Gharib Shah, in Rahim Yar Khan in the southern Punjab province March 1, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

The new law criminalizes all forms of violence against women, whether domestic, psychological or sexual, and calls for the creation of a toll-free abuse reporting hot line and the establishment of shelters.

Muslim-majority Pakistan, home to roughly 190 million people, sees thousands of cases of violence against women every year, from rape and acid attacks to sexual assault, kidnappings and so-called “honor killings”.

“The instances of violence against women have been on the increase, primarily because the existing legal system does not effectively address the menace and violence by some is perpetrated with impunity,” said the text of the legislation passed by the Punjab assembly.

In 2013, more than 5,800 cases of violence against women were reported in Punjab alone, the province where Wednesday’s law was passed, according to the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights advocacy group.

Those cases represented 74 percent of the national total that year, the latest for which data is available.

The leader of one of Pakistan’s largest orthodox Sunni Muslim seminaries denounced the new law as being in conflict with the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

“Attempting to change religious and national values in the name of protecting women is a tragedy that is of great concern,” Muhammad Naeem, head of the Jamia Binoria seminary in the southern city of Karachi, said in a statement.

The new law establishes district-level panels to investigate reports of abuse, and mandates the use of GPS bracelets to keep track of offenders.

It also sets punishments of up to a year in jail for violators of court orders related to domestic violence, with that period rising to two years for repeat offenders.

Rights groups welcomed the law, but warned that its implementation remained a concern.

“The change in law would only make a difference if there is effective enforcement and the legislature continues to engage with the issue and ensures oversight,” said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Domestic abuse, economic discrimination and acid attacks make Pakistan the world’s third most dangerous country in the world for women, a 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll showed.

Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE; Editing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik, Krista Mahr; and Clarence Fernandez