Growing up in Jahoor village in Chitral, Raheela Kanwal witnessed injustice particularly in those families where women were exchanged in marriage contracts for money. Those women often suffered a lot. She wished for social justice for those around her but didn’t quite understand how. As she grew up, she knew someone had to take the first step. She knew joining the legal profession was a way to help others; she studied law and eventually began her legal practice in 2012 as the first woman lawyer in Chitral. Raheela knew the journey she was on would be isolating but rewarding too. She hoped setting a new example for girls in her village and in Chitral, so those who follow the route, have support and encouragement of other women lawyers working in the field.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has a gender imbalance in the legal profession. Women lawyers in positions of power are even less. Till date, Pakistan has not had a female Supreme Court judge or Attorney General of Pakistan. As per statistics by the Ministry of Law, only 6 out of 113 judges of high courts across the country are women. And out of 198 members of 7 bar councils across the country, only 6 happen to be women. On paper, these may be just a few numbers, but they go far in reflecting gender disparity in the litigation and judiciary in Pakistan. With women lawyers like Raheela, the environment is changing but it’s still a long way to go.
Women in the legal profession in Pakistan face a number of challenges while performing their daily duties. After a tough journey convincing family and those around her to pursue a male-dominated profession, Raheela then had to overcome financial constraints to seek a law degree.
Women lawyers like Raheela, and many others, who are the first from their communities to enter the legal profession, also face gender discrimination in a male-oriented field.
Infrastructural challenges like no separate bar rooms, resting areas, lack of day care centres and non-gender inclusive courts add to the many challenges women lawyers in the field face on a daily basis and discourage them from pursuing the profession.
Even if they bear with the lack of inclusivity in the profession, the lack of growth and learning opportunities, strategic advice and mentorship stand between women who want to succeed in the legal profession and their goals.
There was no sharing platform for women lawyers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where they could connect and learn from each other. To fill that space, UNDP, in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council, supported the formation of the first-ever Women Lawyers’ Forum in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2015 with 30 members. In 2016, the forum held its first ever conference in Swat.
Today, the forum now has more than 160 members who are all working women lawyers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Merged Areas (MAs). The Women’s Lawyer Forum gives its members an opportunity to learn more about the legal profession and in resolving challenging cases, seeking professional advice, finding out about new cases and career opportunities as well as connecting with senior lawyers to learn more from them. The forum acts as a platform to connect, empower and enable women lawyers of not only in Peshawar but those hailing from other parts including Charsadda, Kohat, Mingora and other cities.
“This forum has grown massively since its formation. I am proud that it is serving its purpose to help women lawyers connect and learn from each other and grow. We also hope in the coming years, this forum offers them specialised trainings to learn more about their profession in their specific fields of interest,” says Mr. Naeem Uddin Khan, Chairman, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council.
While appreciating the performance of Women Lawyers Forum, Vice Chairman Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council tells this scribe, “I am happy that this forum is helping women lawyers in connecting with other women lawyers from other parts of country. I hope the coming time and exposure from this forum will help them gain further legal knowledge. Members share valuable books, judgements, laws and any pertinent information, which helps them grow.”
In 2019, the forum held a conference with over 130 participants at the Area Study Center in University of Peshawar that was attended by junior and senior women lawyers from all over the province. The conference gave them an opportunity to travel to Peshawar and connect with each other, learn best practices, build capacity, discuss challenges and disputes and gain strategic advice. This conference aimed to provide participants an opportunity to review and endorse the Women Lawyers Charter.
Although the initial plan was to host this conference annually, it couldn’t occur in 2020, due to Covid-19. These women lawyers meanwhile have been connecting with each other virtually and seeking advice for specific cases and generic advice for career progression from each other.
As for now, the plan is to host another conference this year with around 200 participants in attendance, which speaks volumes about the growth and potential of the platform and the willingness of women lawyers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to learn and grow.
UNDP Amn-o-Insaf Programme’s role in supporting women lawyers
Besides the formation of the Women Lawyers Forum, UNDP, with support of its partners and donors, through its ‘Amn-o-Insaf Programme’ has provided scholarships to over one hundred and fifty young girls to pursue legal education, enabled female law graduates to transition in to the career with support of a stipend, designed and executed trainings for women lawyers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, built bar rooms designated for female lawyers in the Malakand division.
Giving women equal opportunities to grow and participate in life is part of United Nation’s mandate. The hundreds of women who have been a part of UNDP’s interventions on the ground and benefited from learning and development opportunities have demonstrated excellent initiative, intelligence, and passion. Their vibrance and the desire to excel is a beacon of light for everyone.
Increasing women’s representation in law is also extremely crucial to achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 (women empowerment), 16 (promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies) and 17 (partnership for goals).
“Women mark almost half of Pakistan’s population and not giving them equal representation means exclusion of that half from development. Their representation in law enforcement is extremely important to make justice seem approachable for many women who may be intimidated of reporting violations in a male-dominated environment,” elucidates Mr Knut Ostby, Resident Representative UNDP
According to Head of UNDP sub-office in Peshawar and Amno-o-Insaf Programme Manager UNDP Jakhongir Khaydarov, empowerment of women is at the heart of UNDP’s mandate. “Increasing women’s representation in the legal profession is crucial to increase women’s access to justice, make them comfortable with seeking legal intervention during times of violations and eventually have women's influence in law and policy development,” he adds.
Despite all the challenges that the women lawyers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa face, they are strong and resilient women who are determined to increase access to justice for citizens including women and the most vulnerable.
In Swat, there is perhaps only a dozen of women lawyers as compared to several hundred male lawyers. However, there are brave lawyers like Ms Samreen Hakeem who are totally committed with their profession. “When we joined there was no designated space for women lawyers. No separate bar rooms where they could practice. It’s very difficult to thrive in such a male-oriented career with little or no support. This not only discourages lawyers to practice but also discourages women to come to courts, but we are trying our best to make a difference,” voices Samreen who is also a member of the Women Lawyers Forum and was one of the nine lawyers who travelled from Swat to Peshawar to attend the conference in 2019. “This conference was a brilliant opportunity because my colleagues in Swat had similar limited capacity and hence seeking advice from each other was not adding value to any of us. Travelling to Peshawar and interacting with senior lawyers from other places helped us all to grow in many ways. During and after the conference, we discussed challenging cases at length and reached conclusions on how to successfully deal with them. We developed strong bonds with the women lawyers in Peshawar and continue to reach out to them whenever needed. It is this support and camaraderie that is helping us grow in number and in our profession,” shares Samreen.
As an existing beneficiary of UNDP, Samreen was given a scholarship to study and train earlier during her profession, so her parents had immense trust in UNDP. For her, seeking permission to travel for the conference was not challenging. She managed to play a valuable role in advocating for the conference to the parents of other lawyers and seeking permission for them to attend from their families as well. Samreen is thankful for the opportunities that came her way and for the efforts that UNDP put in to facilitate women lawyers to attend the conference. She is now hopeful that these lawyers will be able to convene again in 2021 to learn more and meet the new members of the forum that have joined ever since the last conference took place.
Advocate Ms Shahnaz Gul is another one of them who has been an agent of change and a beneficiary of the Women Lawyers Forum in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Shahnaz has been practicing law since the past seven years in Mingora, Swat. Shahnaz had also attended trainings designed for women lawyers in Swat and benefited from the law library provided by UNDP. “I have gained immense courage due to the knowledge I acquired. I could be practicing for years but without these trainings, there would have been only so much I would know. Most of us couldn’t afford to get the books that these law libraries provide,” acknowledges Shahnaz. She also travelled to Peshawar for the conference which helped her overcome challenges pertaining to particular cases. “Senior lawyers would often share their past challenging cases and share judgement to help us learn. We have to have these conferences on regular basis that help us to grow professionally,” suggests Shahnaz. She now hopes to focus and specialise in criminal law. It is her dream that other young girls pursue legal education and join this profession. “We may be less in number but our future generations should be able to see gender parity in the legal profession in Pakistan. Let’s hope for a just society in future,” concludes Shahnaz.