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Ray of hope?

December 08, 2017


IN a country where women get raped, gang-raped or killed for ‘honour’; where many more at the slightest provocation are subjected to other forms of horrendous violence that result in life-altering injuries, there is a ray of hope. The Punjab government’s Violence Against Women Centre (VAWC) in Multan which opened recently, has come at a time when rights groups contend that violence against women has increased manifold.

Based on media reports, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded over 2,500 cases of violence — sexual, domestic, burning and kidnapping — against women in 2016. Verbal, physical and psychological and online violence remains under the radar.

The opening of the centre — manned by a trained, all-women team — in March has opened the floodgates: it has received more than 1,300 cases in only nine months, that too from merely three tehsils of Multan district.

Experts contend this is the tip of the iceberg: Violence against women (VAW) remains hugely underreported and among the most misunderstood of crimes. Many women cannot brace themselves to reveal the brutality they suffer, not only because it is ugly and uncomfortable to talk about, but also because of the stigma attached to it. No wonder the percentage of reported rape is so shockingly low. Moreover, institutionalised misogyny in the criminal justice system means that the conviction rate for even instances of such violence that are reported remains dismally low at 1-2.5 per cent.

The launch of the centre for VAW has opened the floodgates.

The choice of Multan by the Strategic Reform Unit (SRU), a think tank set up by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, as the location for the first centre appears a sound one: the incidence of VAW in southern Punjab, an agricultural belt steeped in age-old patriarchy, is perhaps more pervasive than anywhere else in Pakistan.

However, the centre cannot be compared to the Darul Amans, or shelter homes for women, run by the provincial social welfare departments. At the Multan centre, survivors are provided with legal, medical, forensic and psychological support, as well as counselling, post-trauma rehabilitation and shelter, under one roof. This will enable women to rebuild their lives and bypass the fragmented justice system with its web of never-ending court-kutchery procedures.

Rights experts have lauded this effort. They say that when a woman wants to report violence, she typically has to go from one government department to another to register her complaint, not only being made to recall the horror of the incident at every step, but also having to deal with misogyny and bias along the way. Maliha Zia Lari, associate director of the Karachi-based Legal Aid Society, expressed the hope that the VAWC staff is more specialised as that would mean women would be less likely to be exposed to “elements of potential exploitation”.

Over the years, Pakistan has come up with several laws that provide protection for women, yet none have so far been implemented in letter and spirit. The justice system, too, is archaic. Ms Zia says that lack of quality education and training, delays in due process, high fees and a litigious system compound the situation.

The SRU sought the help of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School to come up with standard operating procedures that have been enforced at VAWC, and which are consistent with international human rights standards.

In many South Asian countries, different departments of government that deal with violence against women work in silos and rarely, if ever, collaborate. Fact-finding and sharing of information is rare too. At the VAWC, special software connects all the departments and tracks all developments.

The VAWC came about after the furiously debated Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, was enacted, says Salman Sufi, the force behind this ambitious project. However, this centre will only provide support to the people in Multan. The Punjab government plans to set up three more such centres in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad by March 2018 and, eventually, one in each of the province’s 36 districts.

It is hoped that the centre, in its functioning, will offer a blueprint that can be emulated across the country. Punjab’s SRU should actively engage with various political parties, rights groups and government officials from other provinces. In fact, being the first of its kind in the region, it can even be a model for other countries in South Asia and beyond.

However, sustainability requires that the VAWC not end up as a personality-driven institution that crumbles without the team leader’s hand on the wheel. As a statutory body with a set of clearly spelt-out SOPs, it is hoped the centre not only flourishes but that it encourages women to report without fear the violence perpetrated on them.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @zofeen28

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2017