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Saving a sanctuary

March 10, 2019

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“NOW you are safe.” This simple message greets those who enter the Violence Against Women Centre in Multan. It is a statement many would take for granted, but for women attempting to escape from and seek justice for gender-based violence — in full knowledge of how vulnerable they are to violent, often fatal, reprisals — it represents sanctuary, a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. But safety isn’t merely born of a refusal to endure intolerable cruelty. The journey from victim to survivor is lengthy and arduous, especially while navigating a legal system in which patriarchy is deeply embedded and, in case after case, demonstrably privileged above the intrinsic rights of women. In recognition of the complexities of GBV, the Multan VAWC (a major initiative of the former provincial government’s gender reforms agenda) is a one-window holistic operation providing shelter, first aid, medical and forensic assistance, police reporting and investigation, legal aid and rehabilitation services to victims. From March 2017 to February’s end this year, 2,934 cases were documented by the centre — thousands of women possibly saved from becoming yet another grim statistic of harassment, assault, domestic abuse, ‘honour’ killing and more, not to mention the potential deterrent effect on abusers knowing that, at least there, a woman’s testimony would be taken seriously. Such is the power and promise of the VAWC.

Two years since it opened its doors, however, the VAWC is itself in need of protection since its funding was suspended by the caretaker government last June. Its devoted staff, keeping the orphaned centre alive for nine months without salaries, is now forced to go on strike. Whereas the Multan centre was conceived as a flagship enterprise with more units slated for other cities across Punjab, the current government, now in office for over six months, has done little other than cite political and bureaucratic rigmaroles in response to earnest calls to restore funding and ensure the project’s long-term viability. Women do not need their male representatives to make pretty speeches while playing petty politics on an issue so central to their lives. True leadership would recognise a visionary concept when it sees one, particularly when it is aligned so closely with the PTI’s pledge of being guardians of the vulnerable. It would ensure that the VAWC’s beacon does not go dark, and commit to bringing change for women across Pakistan by lighting more.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2019