Long road to justice for domestic violence victims as law remains unimplemented

Yousuf Katpar
Monday, Jun 17, 2024

KARACHI: Nazia, a 29-year-old single mother, resides with her six-year-old son in a small one-room house in Karachi’s low-income Junejo Town. Her mother and sister also live in the same neighbourhood. Despite working tirelessly as a housemaid in four houses, Nazia takes home a paltry Rs25,000 per month, which is less than the minimum wage in Sindh, Rs32,000.

Nazia had dreamt of a happy life when she married a rickshaw driver in 2017. However, her high expectations from her married life soon shattered. Just three months into their marriage, her husband began physically and verbally abusing her.

They lived in Sukkur in a joint family setup with her two sisters-in-law. Daily quarrels between them over household chores became a routine.

One day, Nazia was beaten up by her sisters-in-law, leaving her with head and facial injuries. She had to be taken to hospital for medical aid.

She recounted her ordeal to her mother who with the help of her brother (Nazia’s maternal uncle who lived in Shikarpur) had her shifted to Karachi.

Nazia subsequently filed for divorce in a family court, which was granted ex-parte (without her husband’s presence). Although the court also ordered maintenance for her only child, the ruling has yet to be implemented. The woman was forced to discontinue her legal battle due to lack of financial resources.

Nazia chose not to report the abuse to the police because she believed it would have further added to her woes. Nor was she aware of her right to approach a court as provided under the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2013 to pursue legal action against her abusive husband and in-laws.

However, contrary to Nazia, Shahnaz Fatima, in her seventies, took a courageous step to file a direct complaint with a Karachi court against her husband Muhammad Saleh and their four sons under the Section 5 of the Act. She had repeatedly endured domestic abuse throughout 35 years of her marriage.

“A few days after the marriage, I found out that my husband was a drug addict and violent person. I was subjected to physical abuse, verbal insults and belittlement over trivial matters, but chose to remain silent to maintain peace in home,” the elderly woman stated in her plaint.

She says her four sons also started abusing her physically, verbally and psychologically when she went to report abuse to the police against her husband.

The woman, mother of five, has been suffering from multiple ailments and her appeals for medical expenses and maintenance only increased her plight.

She filed a complaint with the Taimuria police but the police didn’t take any action. Months later, the woman again approached the police with the same complaint but to no avail.

It was after she managed to file a direct complaint with the relevant magistrate under the Act with the help of a pro bono lawyer that she was able to get some relief.

The magistrate directed her sons to deposit Rs2,500 each as interim maintenance every month with the nazir (court official) to be paid to her. They are required to do so until final disposal of the case.

These are but few cases in which women suffering abusive relationships at last decided not to endure that any further. In the first case, a victim turned to divorce to escape an abusive relationship without exhausting protections available to her under the law. In the second case, the victim woman approached court and secured interim relief for herself.

Domestic violence is very common in Pakistan but very few survivors come out and fight to get justice.

A study report published by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in December last year billed domestic violence as “a silent pandemic in Pakistan, posing a serious challenge to society and the state.”

The ADB report, ‘The Gendered Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Central and West Asia’, quoted a survey carried out in Punjab and Sindh in 2020, reporting an increase in incidences of threats of physical violence by 40 per cent and of spousal assaults by 46 per cent.

Moreover, 14 per cent of the surveyed women knew someone in their community who had been threatened with physical harm by their husband, 19 per cent knew someone who was physically assaulted by her husband and 27 per cent knew of cases where children were beaten by their parents.

The report said development partners in Pakistan noted a significant increase in violence against women and girls (VAWG) due to loss of livelihoods and restrictions.

According to data shared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a total of 234 cases of domestic violence were reported from across Pakistan in 2023 with the highest number of cases in Punjab (145), followed by Sindh (65), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (21), and Balochistan (3). No case was reported in Islamabad and Gilgit-Baltistan in that year.

In 2022, a total of 183 cases of domestic violence were reported, including 128 from Punjab, 37 from Sindh, 14 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, three from Balochistan and one from Gilgit-Baltistan. No cases were reported from the federal capital.

2020 and 2021 were the years of the Covid-19 pandemic which also saw a rise in domestic violence cases. Pakistan saw the cases of domestic abuse almost doubling to 241 in 2021 from 130 in 2019.

These are the cases which made it to newsrooms and only scratch the surface of the real extent of the problem. The actual number of cases could be much higher, as many incidents go unreported due to familial pressures, societal stigma, survivors choosing not to report abuse to maintain harmony in family, and lack of go-to mechanism to file complaints.

“As per the available data, one case of domestic violence was reported approximately every day in 2023. However, these statistics fail to fully capture the true scope of the issue. It’s alarming to note that a large number of women and vulnerable groups in Sindh, who have endured domestic violence refrain from seeking assistance or disclosing their experiences to anyone due to lack of reporting mechanisms,” Barrister Rida Tahir, legal adviser to the Sindh Human Rights Commission (SHRC), wrote in a letter to the provincial women development department, seeking implementation of the Act.

Iqbal Ahmed Detho, the chairperson of the SHRC, said the commission had handled a total of 82 domestic violence cases in the last five years. Giving a breakdown of the cases, he said the SHRC handled 19 cases in 2023, 33 in 2022, 10 in 2021, eight in 2020, and 12 in 2019.

Since its establishment, the commission has received a total of 104 complaints related to domestic violence, and taken suo motu notice of 18 cases. Of the total 122 cases, 102 have been disposed of, while 17 are pending, he explained.

Ineffective implementation

On March 8, 2013, the Sindh Assembly passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act to “institutionalize measures which protect women, children, and any vulnerable person from domestic violence”. Under the law, the government is bound to spread awareness about the Act through electronic and print media and impart periodic sensitisation trainings to government officers, police and judicial officers, which has not been done.

Interestingly, a commission required to be constituted under the law to oversee the effective implementation of the law still does not exist, let alone protection committees and protection officers.

According to the Section 5 of the law, the government is mandated to constitute a commission to review from time to time the existing provisions of the law on domestic violence and suggest amendments therein; call for investigation into specific incidents of domestic violence; take suo motu notice of matters and look into the non-implementation of the law.

The law mandates setting up protection committees comprising a social welfare officer, a medical practitioner, a psychologist, a psycho-social worker, a court-appointed official, a female cop, two women from civil society and a protection officer. These committees are responsible for informing the aggrieved person of her or his rights provided under the Act, assisting them in obtaining medical treatment necessitated due to domestic violence and relocating, if the aggrieved person desires, to a safer place.

The committees are also required to assist the aggrieved persons in the preparation of and filing of any petition or report under this Act, and maintain official record of the incidents of domestic violence in its area of jurisdiction.

Moreover, the government has to appoint protection officers, who are supposed to prepare a report for the protection committee upon receipt of a complaint of domestic violence. They are also supposed to file application in court if the aggrieved person desires, and ensure that the aggrieved person is provided legal aid.

The officers are mandated to get the aggrieved person medically examined, if he or she has sustained bodily injuries and forward a copy of the medical report to the protection committee having jurisdiction in the area where the domestic violence incident has allegedly taken place.

Neither has the commission and nor have the protection committees been formed despite the passage of more than a decade since the enactment of the law. The government has not even appointed protection officers.

“This is a very comprehensive law,” said Barrister Tahir. “It defines domestic violence in a broad way, which encompasses not only gender-based physical and psychological abuse against women, children, and vulnerable individuals, but also emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse.”

“The law is failing to effectively tackle the issue due to lack of awareness, which is also hindering its implementation,” she opined.

Barrister Tahir highlighted that victims of domestic violence also face challenges in filing a complaint directly with the relevant magistrate, as stipulated by the law.

She added that protection committees had to be established to support the survivors in seeking justice. “These committees have many functions, including informing the victims about their rights, assisting them in approaching the court, helping draft petitions, and providing guidance in seeking medical advice and lodging a first information report (FIR) of the violence.”

Advocate Behzad Akbar, who has experience in handling domestic violence cases, revealed that police often fail to cooperate with victims of domestic violence, shrugging such cases aside as family matters. “In 90 per cent of the cases I handled, when victims went to a police station to report abuse, the SHO instead of lodging an FIR summoned the other side and asked them to amicably resolve the issue,” he said.

“In several cases, judicial magistrates have insisted that survivors must first approach the protection officer concerned before filing a petition in court,” he pointed out.

“A magistrate said ‘the victim cannot approach the court directly without first submitting an application to the protection officer concerned,’” the lawyer recalled. “I then had to convince the magistrate that the government had not yet appointed any protection officers, as required by the law. In fact, the last pages of the Act, which provide a mechanism for victims to seek justice, had not been implemented.”

Komal, a resident of Korangi, petitioned the magistrate concerned against her husband and father-in-law for allegedly subjecting her to domestic violence.

In a written order on her petition, the magistrate noted: “The petitioner was required to approach the concerned protection officer in first instance and then if the circumstances were so requiring the petitioner could approach this court by filing the petition afresh with the assistance of protection officer as provided under Sub-rule (2) of Rule 32 of Domestic Violence (Prevention & Protection) Rules, 2016. However, during the course of hearing, the learned counsel verbally argued that the petitioner sent the complaint to the protection officer through courier but was paid no heed, therefore she directly approached this Court for redress of grievance”.

Behzad said the number of domestic violence petitions remains extremely low as each magistrate has about two to three pending cases. “Some magistrates do not even accept petitions related to domestic violence due to lack of knowledge and training on how to proceed with such cases,” he lamented.

Prior to the enactment of the DV law, victims of domestic violence had only one recourse: to approach the police that would lodge an FIR under sections of the Pakistan Penal Code. That wasn’t easy either since the police didn’t treat it as a crime until something severe happened like death.

With the enactment of the law, it’s as if the government has fulfilled its responsibility and raised its hands, saying, it has done its part.

Sindh has taken the lead in enacting laws on various important issues before other provinces, but unfortunately, these laws often remain unimplemented, falling short in achieving the desired objectives.

Senior women development department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the department is understaffed with only nine districts having assistant directors. However, they added that the Sindh Public Service Commission has conducted the written examination and interviews for the posts of Assistant Director (Women Empowerment & Protection) lately.

31 candidates have qualified and are expected to join in a month, they said. With their appointment, every district will have an officer, who shall also discharge his duties as per the Act, the officials said.