By Zubeida Mustafa
THE theme of International Women`s Day observed on Monday was `equal rights, equal opportunities and progress for all`. One may well ask if this ideal can ever be achieved as long as the unequal power relationship between the sexes, which causes women to become victims of domestic violence, continues to exist.
Unicef now recognises that when the home which is supposed to be the safest place for a woman becomes a torture chamber for her and her children at the hands of her partner it amounts to the denial of equality, security, dignity and self-worth to the victim. Behind every act of violence is a human story that is reduced to cold statistics — not always accurate. Nevertheless, news of such tragedies comes to haunt one and cannot be brushed aside.
Since last week a young woman named Nurjehan has been in my thoughts. It could have been anyone in a similar situation for it is a story we have heard so often. Ever since she was married, Nurjehan was beaten regularly by her husband until she could take it no more and escaped to her parents.
Her husband took her refusal to submit to his brutality as an act of dishonour. She had to return home after what was described as a `reconciliation`. But the very next day Nurjehan`s bruised body was found in her bedroom. She had been strangled to death and the family was missing.
Could this tragedy have been prevented? Of course it could — only if we had been willing to break the silence that shrouds domestic violence. This is one of the most under-reported crimes in the country. According to the information provided by the Pakistan government to the UN secretary-general`s database on violence against women, only 2,183 cases of domestic violence were reported in 2008.
Of these 1,005 were murders and 770 were beatings. Since sociologists believe that habitually violent men who regularly beat their wives may in a fit of rage actually kill her, the matter needs to be taken more seriously than it is now.
When wife beating has been investigated — not an easy task in our society because few men/women admit it — it is found that the incidence of it is very high. According to Amnesty International, 70 per cent of women have experienced physical violence in their homes while many more are victims of verbal abuse. If all of them were to speak up, wouldn`t it be easier to prevent many of the deaths that come in the wake of domestic violence?
Deaths are quantifiable. What about the intangible psychological, social and economic damage inflicted on a woman by domestic violence? A relationship marked by a pattern of wife-beating should not be ignored as it could be a warning of worse to come. Neither should the humiliation of women by the men in the family be treated lightly.
There is a stigma attached to domestic violence that stops people — even the female victims — from talking about it. It is not even admitted that this aberration cuts across class and education lines and the brutality goes unchallenged. It is seen as a question of honour. For women conditioned to believe that men can do no wrong, it is a punishment they invite by their own conduct. If some doubts linger, religious injunctions are cited to justify the man`s right to subdue his wife physically.
In a society steeped in such perversity, one would have thought that our lawmakers, who are expected to be men and women of superior wisdom, would have been in a hurry to pass a law against domestic violence. Sadly, that is not really the case.
The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2009 that was passed by the National Assembly in August last year failed to clear the Senate within three months and lapsed.
This came as a shock since it had been adopted unanimously and its passage through the lower house had been treated as a landmark event for women. It was strange that the frivolous objections raised by a senator who also happens to be a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology should have stalled the bill. Knowledgeable persons in Islamabad also pointed to a lack of commitment among PPP male members who do not consider domestic violence to be such a grave issue as to upset the political balance.
Sherry Rehman, the PPP MNA who has been the driving spirit behind this bill — she introduced it twice in the previous National Assembly when her party was in the opposition — has again introduced the draft last month as a private member bill and is determined to see it through both houses this time. We wish her success, for this bill will go a long way towards bringing domestic violence in the open as is the need of the hour.
The bill itself is a remarkable piece of document. It expands the definition of domestic violence from the conventional perception of physical abuse to include `economic abuse`, criminal intimidation, stalking, verbal and emotional abuse and other such acts that can destroy a woman.
Besides, it makes provision for practical contingencies. A protection committee and a protection officer in every tehsil is to look into every case of domestic violence reported to a court and provide protection and support to the aggrieved party.
The next step will be, after the law is enacted, to get people to make use of the facilities provided by the legislation. This is possible only if the taboo on reporting domestic violence is broken. This can be done only at the social level by getting women to break the silence. It is also important that those who know of domestic violence should not turn a blind eye to it on the ground that it is not their business. It is their business for one does not have to wait for a woman to be killed before one speaks up.