By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan's Human Rights Commission (HRCP) on Thursday welcomed a landmark law passed by the country's most populous province, Punjab, to stop violence against women, but said it would make a difference only if there was "efficient enforcement".
The Protection of Women against Violence Bill 2015, passed in Punjab on Wednesday, criminalizes all forms of violence against women, including domestic, sexual, psychological, emotional, economic and verbal.
Under the new law, the provincial government will establish district protection centers, residential shelters and a toll-free helpline for victims of violence.
The law also says family courts must hold hearings within seven days of a complaint being made, and a decision must be taken on all complaints within 90 days. For serious offences, courts can order defendants to wear GPS-linked bracelets to monitor their movements.
"These are all much-needed measures that deserve praise, but it is important to remember that cosmetic and purely procedural changes have not had an impact in the past," the HRCP, a leading non-profit organization, said in a statement.
"The change in law will only make a difference if there is effective enforcement and the legislature continues to engage with the issue and ensures oversight," it added.
Girls and women in Pakistan face many threats, from acid attacks and "honor killings" to domestic violence, rape and kidnapping, activists say.
A study conducted by the Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani women's rights group, in 2013 showed that Punjab province alone accounted for 5,800 crimes against women - 74 percent of crimes against women in the whole of Pakistan.
A poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011 ranked Pakistan the third most dangerous country in the world for women, after Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This was based on cultural, tribal and religious practices harmful to women such as acid attacks, child and forced marriage and punishment or retribution by stoning or other forms of physical abuse.
Pakistan has no comprehensive federal law to tackle violence against women, but the HRCP said it hoped the action by Punjab's parliament would encourage Islamabad to follow suit.
"We hope that the new measure would facilitate the enforcement of law to protect women in the whole country and ways will be found to push through the central bill that has been pending for a long time in order to protect women in the federal capital too," it said.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)