Pakistan's lower house of parliament strengthened a law against honour killings on Tuesday, but opposition parties and human rights activists say it lacks bite and sincerity.
The UN Children's Agency UNICEF defines honour killing as an ancient practice in which men kill female relatives in the name of family "honour" for forced or suspected sexual activity outside marriage or even when they have been victims of rape.
Opposition lawmakers staged a walkout as Pakistan's National Assembly approved the amendment, which increases the minimum jail term for people convicted of an honour-related crime from seven to 10 years.
The government had pushed to the sidelines an opposition bill on honour killing drafted in consultation with NGOs, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Aurat Foundation. It said it would introduce its own bill in parliament.
The opposition's Sherry Rahman, whose bill was rejected by the government, described the government proposal as one that "misses the essential ingredients which could have confronted the main issues and punished those committing murder in the name of honour". The legislation is part of government efforts to eliminate the medieval custom.
Exact figures for honour killings are hard to compile because many go unreported. But according to human rights organisations, the HRCP and the NGO Madadgar, at least 758 women were killed in 2001. The province of Sindh had the highest count with 453. In 2002, around 823 women were killed in the name of honour, most in Sindh (423). In 2003, 1,261 women were killed for honour, 638 in Sindh and 463 in Punjab province.
Women's rights activist Majida Razvi praised the bill as a step toward curbing violence against women but said it fell far short of hopes. "It's a weak law because it does not fully cover the crime. But it is a positive step," said Razvi, head of the government-appointed National Commission on the Status of Women.
Women rights groups have documented 410 incidents of killing for honour from January to September 2004. According to Pakistan's Interior Ministry, more than 4,000 males and females have been victims of honour killings in the last six years. Since 1998, 3,451 cases of honour killing have been registered of which 1,262 are currently before the country's courts.
The amended law will ensure that senior police officers are compelled to investigate honour killings. The bill also states that a woman accused of adultery can only be arrested on the orders of a judge. The bill must be approved by the Senate before President Pervez Musharraf signs it into law.
The bill also proposes abolishing the practice of giving a female in marriage or otherwise to compensate for a murder. This practice is known as the custom of wani.
Under existing laws, the perpetrators of honour killings often escape with reduced sentences if they can prove they were "provoked" into committing the crime. "We did it with utmost sincerity, dedication and intense deliberations involving all concerned segments of society," said Nilofar Bakhtiar, an adviser to the prime minister, in her remarks on the floor of the lower house after the bill was passed.
"We have passed a law that must be a matter of pride for women. We must have courage to redefine the word 'honour' and go for effective implementation of this law," she said.
Human rights activists and lawmakers had demanded the government stiffen penalties for honour killings. "There are several flaws in the draft of the proposed bill on honour killing. It is not acceptable and movement will be launched if it is passed in its present shape," former head of HRCP, Asma Jehangir, told IRIN.
Jehangir said the bill would do little to stop honour killings. "The government bill is meaningless. It is a watered-down [bill] and we don't accept that bill. We reject it outright." She added: "There is an emergency as far as women's lives are concerned. And there is complete impunity in this country for anyone to kill a woman."
In addition to murder, other types of honour crimes occur with alarming frequency. In several cases, local leaders have sentenced women to be gang-raped or suffer other extra-legal punishments. The HRCP said any truly effective law would need to ensure that those who committed a whole range of honour-related crimes ended up on trial.
Former judge Nasira Javed Iqbal told IRIN the bill allowed close relatives of the deceased to escape punishment with ease.
She quoted religious scholar Dr Farooq Khan to stress that Islam made no allowance for honour killing. "It [condemnation of such killings] could be substantiated by the Holy Koran," she said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly condemned the practice of honour killing.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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