Seven years ago, Peshawar native Masooma survived an acid attack by her husband. Lucky to be alive, she received treatment and moved away with her daughter.
Attempting to move on with her life, despite the daily scarring reminder of what had happened to her, Masooma married another man recently. She thought the worst was over but her second husband never ceases to put her down on account of her facial wounds. It thus comes as no surprise to her when strangers look at her with fright as soon as her face is revealed, for if her own partner cannot see her real beauty they how could she expect this from others.
Like Masooma, scores of women of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) who suffer from domestic abuse, acid attacks, early and forced marriages, trafficking, and lack of economic independence await assistance from the state and development agencies that promised them empowerment.
When the present government assumed power in KP in 2013, the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus established five committees headed by women to work towards legislation for ending acid attacks, illegal trafficking of women and children, early marriages, harassment, and promoting home-based workers.
However, legislative work in all five areas has been devastatingly slow, if not outright halting.
The law against domestic abuse in the province has been awaiting approval for around a decade. According to the Health and Demographic Survey 2017-18, 52% of women suffer physical abuse from their husbands in the province, with some districts reporting the number as high as 66%. Despite these appalling statistics, legislation to protect women inside their homes has been pending, despite the KP Cabinet having approved the law in November 2018.
Talking to Sabaat, information secretary for the Women Parliamentary Caucus, Sumera Shams, said the summary of the draft bill, after having cleared all objections and incorporated additions, has been sent to the law department. She hoped that the law will be passed in the provincial assembly during its next session.
KP follows the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Law — enacted by the British Raj — when it comes to early marriages, which stipulates a meagre Rs1,000 fine or one-month imprisonment for those facilitating marriages of boys under 18 and girls under 16 years of age.
There have been many attempts to improve the child marriage law in the province but they have always faced resistance from religious conservatives in and out of government and thus have had to be shelved. The main objection is against increasing the marriageable age of girls from 16 to 18 years.
Women, child trafficking
There have been several attempts in the last seven years to enact laws for ending the illegal trafficking of women and children in the province.
Women Parliamentary Caucus members Madiha Nisar and Shagufta Malik have been working towards this end, though progress has been painfully slow.
Talking to Sabaat, Madiha informed that they are in the process of gathering data from across the districts to form an informed opinion on the subject before the law can be passed. She added that they will take all stakeholders on board, including the many public and private aid agencies working on the matter, to ensure the passing of a robust law.
The home-based workers of KP have been awaiting legal protection for seven years. In the previous provincial assembly, women lawmakers Meraj Humayun and Sajida Hanif attempted to enact laws for the welfare of home-based workers but their plans could not materialise.
Talking about the ongoing efforts on this front, chairperson of the assembly’s home-based workers committee, Zeenat Bibi, said a draft bill has been prepared in consultation with a task force comprising members of the departments of law and labour, UN Women, women caucus, and several lawmakers.
She added that the draft resolves several issues faced by home-based workers, including registration, labour rights, and economic incentives.
A law against acid attacks was finalised on December 4, 2019 by the social welfare department. It calls for life sentence for perpetrators of such heinous attacks wherein the victim dies, as well as 7-year jail term and Rs500,000 fine in cases where the victim is injured. Moreover, the draft law states that police officials not under the rank of a Station House Officer will investigate cases of acid attacks and officials found wanting in their investigation will face jail terms of up to two years.
The law also directs the provision of assistance for survivors of such attacks, as well as protection of witnesses in these cases.
Despite its bold provisions for protection of victims and punishment of perpetrators and lax investigators, the law is yet to be enacted, leaving victims of acid attacks wandering unprotected in the wilderness.
Ayesha Naeem, who heads the committee spearheading the initiative to enact the law, said they are collecting the relevant data with regards to the issue and will pass the law soon.