By HANEEN RAFI
KARACHI: Out of 144 countries, the World Economic Forum has reported that with regard to gender equality, Yemen is the only country with a worse score than Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan is performing only a little better than a country embroiled in war justifies the multitude of voices that call for better legislation, implementation and accountability of laws for the protection of women.
And to further this aim, a follow-up regional dialogue titled ‘Effective Implementation of Pro-Women Laws and Protection Mechanism for Women’ was held here on Wednesday. The legal fraternity and civil society were present with the goal to collaborate and share their experiences of implementing the various laws designed to protect women, and the problems they faced along the way.
The Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), the organiser of the event, highlighted developments in its Gender and Equity Programme (GEP) that aims to map and further provide legal services to women in 12 districts around Pakistan — four in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa each, and one each in Sindh, Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
According to Shazia Shaheen, project manager SPO, the challenges and problems in implementation of pro-women laws need to be discussed between all stakeholders in greater detail.
Her presentation was on the database collected about women litigants, and the pro bono legal services cultivated and provided as part of the GEP.
“The interventions have been implemented over almost a year and a half, and our focus has been to strengthen the district bar association, as well as set up facilitation kiosks in courts at district levels,” she said.
Sharing the data collected with the audience, Ms Shaheen shared how a large majority of registered litigants were cases regarding guardianship of minors, and issues of divorce and khula. The least number of registered cases were for rape and forced conversions.
“We have seen several obstacles in the way of implementation of pro-women legislation and these need to be addressed,” she explained. And the data collected by SPO revealed that cases regarding honour killing, acid throwing and domestic violence were not being documented. “This raises an interesting dilemma. Despite the number of interventions in play, are the affected women not aware of the legal aid provided under the project, or is it inaccessible to them altogether,” she questioned.
This issue, she reiterated, is of great concern to all stakeholders involved in protecting women in the country.
Lack of data in Sindh
Hyder Shar, from the Centre of Peace and Justice, spoke about the issues specific to Sindh. There is no designated institute in Sindh, he highlighted, which compiles data and statistics pertaining to offences against women, as well as court cases fighting for them.
“Such data can be put to good use by policymakers, NGOs or any other organisation, and should be readily available on the necessary websites of organisations working in the domain of the law,” he explained.
Access to data is amongst the biggest issues faced, according to Mr Shar.
“Usually, government officials are reluctant in sharing such information, and when the data is accessed, it is hardly ever properly compiled or structured,” he elaborated.
Afia Zia, representing the Women’s Action Forum, spoke about the efforts of civil society in redefining the narrative of murder in the name of honour, and understanding the motivations behind it. However, she was honest in her critical assessment of the legal fraternity and civil society, and the lapses in their well-meaning efforts to empower Pakistani women.
She shared her optimism at the progress being made with regard to the recent Anti Rape Act 2016 and the Anti Honour Killing Act 2016. However, more needs to be done by adopting a multipronged approach.
“In most discussions we have seen confusion among stakeholders regarding the precise details of the law protecting women on a federal as opposed to a provincial level,” she lamented. Most honour killing cases exist within the framework of the province they are executed, and consequently prosecuted in and thus many are not aware of the specific differences.
Ms Zia explained how the murder of Qandeel Baloch, she believes, will help civil society and legal activists come together on a more balanced platform and comprehend, outside of the populism and sensationalism attached to the case, the attitudinal approach of the legal teams, police, the perpetrators and prosecutor general, among others.
Another matter of concern that needs to be addressed, according to the speakers, was to reduce the gap between civil society and the legal fraternity in the drafting of the law and the legislative process. There is a need to bring together the expertise of both stakeholders so that more directed progress is made in the field of women’s access to justice.
Though the original line-up of speakers included Javed Jabbar, former senator and co-founder of SPO, as well as Anis Haroon, member of the National Commission for Human Rights, Sindh, both were unable to attend.