ISLAMABAD: A quota for women in the superior judiciary should be prescribed within the mandate of Article 25 of the Constitution in order to eradicate the gender imbalance in the superior judiciary, speakers and human rights activists said on Thursday.

Pakistan is the only country in South Asia to have never appointed a woman to the Supreme Court, speakers said at a session on the ‘Role of Judiciary in Promoting Women’s Access to Justice in South Asia’ at the Sustainable Development Conference.

The session was dedicated to the late Asma Jahangir, and participants recalled her struggle for justice for marginalised groups.

They noted that women are underrepresented in the superior judiciary, although the Constitution does not bar women from being appointed, and referred to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan which said that only 5.3pc of high court judges are women.

The report demonstrated that working conditions and opportunities discriminate against women, rendering them less able to progress. Other countries in the region have much better indicators regarding gender equality in the superior judiciary.

Jahangir’s daughter Munizae Jahanagir, a journalist, said the failure to implement the free legal aid system had created financial obstacles to the provision of justice for women.

She said women lawyers should be provided an environment that is conducive so they may grow as professional lawyers and be considered for judicial appointments. If women are provided their due representation in the superior judiciary, she said, they will contribute to the overall betterment of society.

She recalled that when her mother “stood for the rights of women” she was accused of serving a Western agenda and faced discrimination during elections in the SC Bar Association when she was elected the first female president.

HRCP’s I.A. Rehman during his speech highlighted the inequalities in the provision of justice in Pakistan, saying justice had become a commodity to be bought by the rich while the poor were deprived of it.

“We still have traditions of patriarchy in Pakistan and we have developed a culture here that doesn’t allow a woman justice and doesn’t permit pro-women laws to be implemented. In our ladder of priority men and Muslims are on top but women and non-Muslims are at the bottom,” he said.

The chair of the session, National Commission on the Status of Women Chairperson Khawar Mumtaz highlighted that the process of the delivery of justice is slow and access to justice is just one part; justice delivery is also delayed.

She said it was unfortunate and alarming that the informal tribal justice system of jirgas and panchayats was being formal for women.

Comparing women’s access to justice in South Asia, Prof Apurba Khatiwada from the Law Tribhuwan University in Nepal, said women’s access to justice in Nepal has been restricted due to the inefficiency of the institutions of justice and the concerns of privacy breaches by women.

Malsirini De Silva from Sri Lanka said the numbers regarding the empowerment of women are quite satisfactory in Sri Lanka, as female literacy is at 92pc, but only 36pc join the labour force.

“There is a lack of women’s participation in the justice system, which hinders the success of access to justice,” she said, giving the example of a United Nations Population Fund report that said 90pc of women using public transport are harassed but just 4pc seek legal aid.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2018