March issue 2011
Interview: Anis Haroon, National Commission on the Status of Women
“The government has the political will,
but we face hurdles from the bureaucracy”
– Anis Haroon, Chairperson,
National Commission on the Status of Women
Q: What authority does the National Commission on the Status of Women have as a body?
A: The NCSW is a statutory body. It is supposed to make recommendations on policy and legislation and, simultaneously, act as a watchdog body to see if the policies or laws are being implemented, including the international instruments such as CEDAW. When the commission was created in 2000, it was brought through an ordinance. According to that ordinance, the commission’s secretariat is the Ministry of Women’s Development (MoWD). This means that for everything, we have to go through the ministry or refer to it and it goes into the same bureaucratic process.
NCSW’s role is very different from that of a government ministry. When we disagree, we say it openly. We write letters to the PM, president or the various CMs. We write 10 letters and get one reply. I am told because I come from an NGO, I don’t know what government procedure is. They say “We send the file and we are not even allowed to send a reminder before two weeks.” Then they respond. The files are passed around over a period of some months. I feel all bureaucracies are slow but ours more so.
One thing the commission is demanding is the power of investigation under the Inquiry Commission Act of 1956. This demand has met with a lot of resistance from all the ministries. The argument that these are judicial powers and will establish a parallel legal system keep coming up. We keep having to explain that we will refer the case to a magistrate, but as far as the investigation goes, the police will be bound to update us on developments, and we will present our findings and reports. Once we get this power, then we will be authorised to make the authorities answerable and we can also be a part of the investigations. We don’t have the capacity to get involved in every single case, neither are we going to set up a court of our own; we will just act as a watchdog.
Last year on March 8, the PM had announced that he had decided to give full financial and administrative autonomy to the commission. In a meeting with him in February, I asked him what he would say this 8th of March since it hasn’t happened. He was not at all happy with this development and asked all the secretaries concerned, especially Shahnaz Wazir Ali who was there at the meeting, to facilitate the autonomy of the commission.
Q: So the autonomy of the commission is something that has been decreed but needs to be brought into effect…
A: Yes, but we also want that this should not remain in the form of an ordinance. Once it goes through the cabinet division, it should go to the National Assembly (NA), so the parliament should also agree to the commission’s autonomy. Once it goes through the cabinet, then it becomes a government bill. We have given many presentations to the Women’s Caucus and the parliamentarians on this, so I don’t see any hurdle for it to be passed through the cabinet.
However, it is still a long process, and if we are able to get it through the cabinet before March 8, it will be a big achievement.
Q: What is your opinion of the Women’s Caucus, and how effective has it been with regards to women-related legislation?
A: It could have been much more effective than it has been. The formation of the caucus is a very positive step; at least you can shake up the members and ask them what is happening and why they aren’t doing something. But somehow, I feel that the process of legislation is so tedious and so slow that you need to have a sizeable number of legislators to focus on the agenda of legislation. The members of the caucus are involved in so many other activities: someone is the chair of or part of another committee, someone is travelling back and forth. The Women’s Caucus should form a legislative wing. There’s a standing committee on women’s rights in the NA and the Senate, but somehow I feel that the focus on the legislation or expediting the legislation is not there.
Q: Do the legislators take the recommendations of the NCSW or civil society organisations such as the Aurat Foundation and the HRCP, seriously?
A: In the case of the Domestic Violence Bill and Protection Against [Sexual] Harassment Act 2010, their recommendations were taken. It was discussed threadbare in the national committee for women’s rights. AASHA really worked hard on the Harassment Act. There is definitely space, but I feel there is so much political upheaval all the time, so much political instability, and this stops the entire process and then you have to start from scratch again. Right now the Raymond Davis case has taken over everything. Issues keep cropping up one after the other, and hamper our work. We keep working but everybody else’s focus shifts.
We have formed a legal committee which consists of retired justices like Majida Rizvi, and lawyers like Hina Jillani and Dr Fakir Hussain. From Quetta we have Kailashnath, who is working on minority rights and family laws. A lot of work has been done by the legal committee and has been accepted and appreciated. But somehow with all this political upheaval or disaster, the momentum gets lost. That’s the difficult job — to keep stability and momentum.
And then there are so many changes in the bureaucracy. Since I’ve been there, three secretaries of the MoWD have changed. Initially, the women’s portfolio was with the PM, except for the last few months when it was given to Firdous Ashiq Awan. And before she could understand what it was all about, she got the Ministry of Information. So I suppose again it has gone back to the PM, and he is a very busy man.
Q: Is this ministry taken seriously by those in government?
A: Well, as far as the political government is concerned, the PM takes it very seriously, but with the different departments or ministries, women don’t really figure on their agenda that much. Theirs is more of a ‘Chalo bhai karna he hai to kar dete hain’ (if it has to be done then we’ll do it) attitude when it comes to issues pertaining to women. They don’t consider it their priority or their mandate. Whenever the push comes, they do something and then they take a backseat.
Q: It seems that whenever there is a piece of women-related legislation in question, there is pressure especially from the right-wingers, who find something or the other wrong with it, and it’s always difficult to push such legislation or amendments through…
A: Every party has rightists. It is very tedious work to manoeuvre. It was very difficult to get the Protection Against [Sexual] Harassment Bill passed and we were very happy when it was passed by the NA. But the way it was stopped in the Senate was very disappointing — there was no need to do it.
Q: The Domestic Violence Bill has turned into a provincial matter because of the 18th Amendment. Isn’t this a bill that applies to the whole of Pakistan? And was it only because of the 18th Amendment that the bill lapsed in the Senate, or were there objections to the bill itself?
A: Actually what happened was at the time all the focus was on the Kerry-Lugar bill and the PPP needed the support of the Fazlur Rahman group, which had raised objections about the bill, so it was never put up for voting. We were 100% sure that if it had been put for voting in the Senate, it would have carried through, because the MQM, PPP and ANP [would have supported it]. But somehow because of this political compromise, a mediation committee was set up, and without being voted on, the bill was referred to the committee. When the committee had almost completed its work and everything was finally sorted out, there came the 18th Amendment.
There is a via media — that’s what we were told by the implementation committee of the 18th Amendment, headed by Raza Rabbani. The legislative body insists that they can introduce this bill in the joint session of the assembly and it can be passed from there, but the implementation committee says it will have to go to the coordination committee which the chief ministers of all the provinces are part of. Either the coordination committee should approve it or, alternately, at least two provincial assemblies must pass a resolution in order for this bill to be taken up by the NA again. The legislators are not very clear about the procedure though.
Q: Aurat Foundation and the HRCP were summoned by the Sindh Home Department and asked to present their recommendations on the Domestic Violence Bill. So the bill now lies with the home department, and in their notification the department expressly states that this is not a federal matter and will be taken up by the Sindh Assembly.
A: I’ve spoken to the ministers concerned in the provincial assembly and we also gave them drafted resolutions. But based on interaction with them, it appears that the provincial government wants to bring its own version of the bill on domestic violence.
Q: The Council of Islamic Ideology stated that the divorce rate would go up if the Domestic Violence Bill were turned into law. What say or weight does the council have as far as legislation is concerned?
A: The council is also a recommendatory body which is [supposed to] see to whether laws are in conformity with Islamic injunctions. But they go beyond that; they claim they have the role of rejecting laws that are not in conformity with Islam. The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and many other civil society organisations have been asking for abolition of the Federal Shariat Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology. Once you have Islamic provisions in your constitution, you don’t need separate bodies like these.
Nobody has been able to do anything. The civilian governments have always been very weak. And they don’t have that much political clout. I don’t think PML-N’s agenda is progressive. It’s only with the ANP, MQM and PPP that hope lies, and some members of PML-Q and PML-N. But when you look at the composition of the coalition, the present government is not a very powerful one.
Q: Some sections of society believe that the Women’s Protection Act (WPA) 2006 came about because the government had taken the initiative and it presented the bill. So is it that in comparison to private member bills, government bills are more powerful?
A: Actually, it was moved by Sherry Rehman as a private members bill and members of the PML-Q joined in. So it was all about clout.
However, government bills have ownership, which the private member bills don’t. So it is very important that the government take ownership — of the Acid Crime Bill for instance. Yes, Marvi Memon and Justice Fakhr-un-Nisa did a good job, but those were just amendments in the Pakistan Penal Code. What we need is a comprehensive law. We have worked with the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) and the legal committee has given a draft which has been approved by the CFOs and the ASF, and we are pressurising the government to take it up.
When Firdous Ashiq Awan was there, she was keen to take it up, but then she knew the ministry was going to be devolved so her interest also shifted. They have to give priority to women.
Q: At the moment, on the WPA front we have the Federal Shariat Court verdict. Has the government filed an appeal?
A: Not yet. The government has six months to file the appeal but some of the civil society organsations — HRCP, WAF and Aurat Foundation — have filed one. But the law ministry should go into appeal. If it doesn’t then the NCSW will also have the option to go into appeal.
Q: We have seen a sharp rise in the incidence of violence against women; several cases have been reported even in these two months of 2011. We are hearing of ‘honour’ killings, acid crimes etc quite frequently again.
A: This is because there is a serious breakdown of the state machinery, both at the provincial and district level. Those who have the power of the gun or all the political power, I believe, have their own agendas. When the conviction rate is so low, how can you expect that these crimes will go down?
Q: How do you think laws impact the collective psyche? Or do you think they have any effect at all?
A: I do believe they have an effect. The argument that is made is: so what if there are laws, there is no implementation. But that is a different set of arguments; for that we have to get into the judicial reforms and the police reforms.
One of the eight researches we conducted in the last two years was on the impact of the WPA. And our research shows that since 2006, not a single woman has languished in jails on charges of zina. This is what I know Sherry Rehman wanted to do for the Blasphemy Law as well. But unfortunately it was mishandled.
I have been part of the women’s movement and I believed in WAF’s stance on the repeal of all discriminatory laws. With the situation at the moment, if we cannot go for repeal, let’s at least provide relief to innocent people or innocent women who are becoming victims of unjust and discriminatory laws. Also, I feel it is very important for legislators, particularly women legislators, to think seriously about taking the legislation forward.
Q: How can legislation help? Each time a case is taken to court, proving the crime becomes such a task…
A: You have to have a mechanism. Like with the Protection Against [Sexual] Harassment Act, the commission has formed an implementation watch committee and all the government and semi-government institutions are on board — and we are increasing the net. The complaints have already started coming. Some decisions have gone in favour of the victims but some have gone against them; this is a process that one has to follow, and it will take time. In December, an ombudsperson was appointed. She still has to start her work.
Q: What will her duties be?
A: A report goes to the committee and if you don’t have faith in the decision of the committee, then you take it to the ombudsperson. So there is an authority outside of your organisation to look into the matter.
Redressal mechanisms have to be improved too. Of course we are focusing on women, but it is tied up to the judicial system of the country and the law-enforcing agencies. Unless you reform the police, and there are judicial reforms, particularly of the trial and sessions courts, and lawyers and judges, little can be achieved. Their level of awareness needs to be changed. They should have knowledge of the laws that exist. Most of the small places don’t even know about the WPA. And I am talking here not of the common man but the police, the lawyers and sessions judges.
So the implementation will take time. Everything is about a change of mindset, and it is so difficult to change. But once people know that there is a law, then there is some apprehension and they are forced to think ‘if we do something, then action can be taken against us.’ Once you start convicting people, then only will we see the effects. Conviction, implementation, etc, all these things have to be monitored.
Q: Monitoring is a huge task. As a commission, do you have the resources?
A: Naturally the government doesn’t have enough resources. There were some resources available to AASHA. They are setting up the provincial and district level committees. The NCSW is a sort of umbrella organisation which is monitoring and providing facilitation for this implementation. There is a need for more women judges. We don’t even have that quota. Neither in the police or judiciary, nor in the election commission. The government had announced that all quotas in government departments would be increased from 5 to 10%. But quota doesn’t mean they should be inducted at the lower cadre only; they should be placed within the hierarchy as well. These things have to be addressed. It’s an uphill task. It’s like one step forward and two steps backwards. It’s a constant struggle.
Q: What would you credit the commission with, in terms of what is has been able to achieve so far? And what will be the commission’s agenda this year?
A: This year, we want to focus on the family laws, especially for women belonging to minority communities. That is one way of protecting minorities and taking their agenda forward. And we are focusing on the legislation and amendments, and making the commission fully autonomous — and I tell you that the government has the political will to do so, but we face hurdles from the bureaucracy. When it comes to government policies, they would like to maintain the status quo; it works in their favour. The commission has to be retained as a federal body of policy, at the policy level under the 18th Amendment.
The other thing is that I still find the Zia-ul-Haq legacy very strong, especially in Islamabad. In his time, we were out on the streets shouting that all discriminatory laws should be repealed. And though it was a dictatorship, we could do that. But now civil society feels so intimidated by what happened after Salmaan Taseer’s death, that people have become very cautious. We do have a silent majority that agrees with all the proposed reforms, but they don’t talk about it, they don’t come out openly in support of it. The problem is, the other side says the Domestic Violence Bill should not be passed and they come out in the thousands against it. We say it should be passed, but only a handful come out. So either the liberals and progressives in the country have left the matter entirely to the ruling elite, or to the religious parties.
I see the commission as being in between the government and civil society. The more pressure civil society puts on us, the more pressure we will be able to put on the government. I was told by one of the senior MNAs in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government that Nizam-e-Adl was ‘the demand of the people.’ So it seems women need to create ‘a demand’ for their rights. The dissent must be kept alive.
Q: What is the legal recourse to getting rid of Zia’s legacy?
A: Get rid of the 8th Amendment. The constitutional reforms committee that was formed asked NCSW to give its recommendations, so we had a national consultation and proposed that they go back to the 1973 constitution without any amendments in it. It would have taken care of all anti-women laws, the so-called Islamic laws and even the amendment made by Zia to incorporate the Objectives Resolution into the constitution and the clauses about the Ahmedis inserted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But it wasn’t touched.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.