Story highlights

Pakistan Law Minister: Accused have used legal loophole to escape punishment

New legislation will ensure suspects won't be able to avoid prosecution

CNN  — 

Long-awaited legislation to tackle so-called honor killings is due to pass Pakistan’s parliament in a matter of weeks, according to the country’s Law Minister, Zahid Hamid.

The anti-honor killing bill is due to be presented in front of a joint sitting of Pakistan’s Senate and the National Assembly as early as August 9, and Hamid says he expects the bill to be passed.

“There have been provisions in the (existing) law that the accused have utilized to escape punishment,” Hamid told CNN. “This has given us a bad image in Pakistan and internationally.”

Pressure has mounted on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling PML-N party in the wake of the murder of Pakistani social media star, Qandeel Baloch. The 25 year-old referred to herself as a “modern day feminist” and was recently killed by her brother for “bringing dishonor to family.”

First introduced and passed in the Senate in March 2015, the bill had failed to enjoy political consensus and wasn’t approved by the National Assembly, a necessary step for it to become law. But a parliamentary committee approved the anti-honor killing bill Thursday, paving the way for it to be approved by Pakistan’s lower and upper houses.

The bill seeks to remove a current loophole in Pakistani law that allows families to forgive the perpetrators of honor killings so they can escape prosecution.

“We’ve been working to remove such loopholes so victims get justice,” Hamid said. “The right of retributive justice by the guardians of the victim means the accused are not even bought to trial at times.”

Tipping point

The news of Qandeel Baloch’s death – a bold young woman known for her daring and risqué social media posts – forced the government to take action.

In a rare move, police charged Waseem Baloch with crimes against the state, meaning he cannot be pardoned even if his and Qandeel’s parents forgive him.

If the new legislation is passed, no perpetrators will be able to avoid prosecution, even if they are forgiven by family members.

Opposition Senator, Sherry Rehman, who in 2004 became the first parliamentarian in the country to introduce a bill against honor killings, told CNN the status quo is not good enough.

“The law provides for ‘forgiveness’ and blood money payments among each other,” she says. “It is quite shocking and infuriating to see the law still providing a culture of sanction and legal impunity for murder.”

Critics and activists have long said change was needed: according to the country’s Independent Human Rights Commission, around 297 women have been murdered this year alone by family and friends in Pakistan due to issues of honor.

Anis Haroon, former chairwoman of the National Commission on Status of Women and current member of the National Commission on Human Rights, said Qandeel’s death was the tipping point.

“Activists had been campaigning for quite some time but Qandeel’s death has invoked a strong reaction – this was a young woman who simply wanted to live her life by own choices.”

Baloch had committed no crime, says Haroon, and was the breadwinner of her family.

“Enough is enough,” she says. “We don’t want any more killings in the name of honor. It’s a total falsehood – there is no honor in killing.”

Will new bill eradicate honor killings?

“No, it won’t totally,” says the bill’s original author, opposition Senator, Sughra Imam.

“But laws are meant to inform and guide social behavior. Criminal laws which allow perpetrators to get away with a crime are not a deterrent.”

The sheer number of reported honor killings, with over 1000 women being killed in 2015 alone, suggests there’s more to the problem than just weak penalties.

Dr Fazana Bari, gender studies expert and human rights campaigner, believes Pakistani society is in transition.

“Women’s aspirations are changing. They are standing up to social morality and men are becoming increasingly frustrated as they face poverty and socio-economic challenges. So they are lashing out.”

Haroon agrees there has been an increase in violence as a new generation of women have grown up – women who now want to dictate their own life choices, choose who they get married to, and choose what they do with their bodies. Choices taken for granted in the West.

But Haroon says the biggest challenge is the implementation of any new law.

“Implementation is an issue. Evidence is often not concrete, destroyed or manipulated by the time it gets to court,” she says. “Police need to be more vigilant and activists need to keep up the pressure. We’ve been asking for reform in the criminal justice system for a long time but that hasn’t happened.”

“The anti-honor killing bill is not going to totally eradicate violence against women but it will help curtail such incidents,” Haroon says.

Activists say the positive sounds around the anti-honor killing bill feel like progress, but with 297 women dead in 2016 and counting, they say they aren’t going to give up until violence against women is no longer the norm.