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Pakistan President Pledges Fresh Initiatives to Protect Women

Pakistan's government has promised a sweeping new agenda to promote women's rights in the conservative Muslim country. The announcement comes as Pakistani religious groups protest against a new law that gives women additional protection from rape and sexual discrimination. VOA's Benjamin Sand reports from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf signed the controversial Women's Protection Law last week, the latest and most significant achievement yet in his self-styled campaign to promote women's rights in Pakistan.

He told a women's conference in Islamabad on Tuesday that the new law was the first of many steps his government wants to take to protect Pakistani women.

During his nationally televised speech, the president said many more reforms are needed.

He says he wants to emancipate women through legislation and that Pakistan needs to eliminate unjust social practices that hinder women's development.

The Women's Protection Law amended the country's long-standing Hudood Ordinances, which required alleged rape victims to produce four male witnesses to substantiate their claims.

The new legislation effectively drops the requirement and shifts future rape cases out of Pakistan's religious courts and into the country's more moderate civil court system.

It also removes the death penalty for women or men charged with having sex outside their marriages.

General Musharraf said his government is now considering new legislation that would eliminate forced marriages, adding that he also hoped to reform the country's antiquated inheritance laws to protect women's property rights.

Human rights groups have welcomed the president's recent push to promote gender equality in Pakistan.

Conservative religious groups however remain bitterly opposed to the president's agenda. Hard-line Islamic leaders say the Women's Protection Law violates Muslim principles and will lead to a "free sex zone" inside Pakistan.

Islamic political parties are calling for nationwide protests and a number of lawmakers have threatened to resign from Parliament.

The president urged women to stand by him however. He said people should vote against any opponents of the new laws during next year's parliamentary elections.

President Musharraf and his allies have strongly supported the new laws for several years and insist they have no intention of backing down now.