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Pakistan: Expedite Domestic Violence Legislation

New Law Criminalizing Sexual Harassment Welcome but Needs Enforcement Tools

(New York) - The Pakistani government should quickly reintroduce legislation to protect women and children from domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill was passed unanimously by the National Assembly on August 4, 2009, but the bill lapsed after the Senate failed to pass it within the three months required under the country's constitution.

"Victims of domestic violence have long faced a double injustice - abuse at home and then no protection from the government," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The proposed law has widespread support in Pakistan, and the government should make passing it a priority."

Legislators from both opposition and government parties told Human Rights Watch that even though President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani supported the bill, it was delayed by unofficial opposition from some ministers who had privately urged members of Islamist parties to oppose the bill in the upper house. Islamist parties had not opposed the bill in the National Assembly.

"It is appalling that ministers from a political party committed to empowering and protecting women and led by a woman for 25 years are trying to undermine their own government's legislative agenda," Hasan said.

The Domestic Violence bill seeks to prevent violence against women and children with a network of protection committees and protection officers and prompt criminal trials for suspected abusers. The bill defines domestic violence as including, though not being limited to, "all intentional acts of gender-based or other physical or psychological abuse committed by an accused against women, children or other vulnerable persons, with whom the accused person is or has been in a domestic relationship."

The bill requires the court to set a hearing within three days of receiving a complaint and to adjudicate the case within 30 days. The law prescribes incremental terms of imprisonment and fines for each breach of a protection order.

Human Rights Watch said that an amendment to the penal code passed in November that criminalizes the sexual harassment of women is a step forward.

The measure makes sexual harassment or intimidation punishable by three years in prison, a 500,000 rupee fine [US $6,000], or both. The bill includes protection in public places such as markets, public transport, streets, or parks, and more private settings, such as workplaces, private gatherings, and homes.

"The new sexual harassment protections in the penal code are some of the most impressive and extensive in South Asia," Hasan said. "If it displays the will, Pakistan's government can be a regional leader in safeguarding women's rights."

Human Rights Watch called on the government to submit a companion bill to the sexual harassment measure to provide a mechanism to investigate complaints. The new law provides legal protections without putting in place the mechanisms needed to give female workers access to the protections, Human Rights Watch said.

The companion measure should oblige employers to abide by a code of conduct, provide a mechanism for punishing wilful violators, and offer victims counselling and medical treatment.

"Pakistan's parliament has passed only half the legislation needed against sexual harassment," Hasan said. "If the government is serious about protecting women, it should present the companion measure for parliamentary approval immediately."

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