Clad in a veil, hiding her identity from the curiosity of the passers-by yet confident in her own skin, Gul Bano* walked three miles on a scorching Tuesday afternoon to attend a community legal awareness session in Bado Khel, a village in the Merged Areas (MAs) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Everyday lives of women were and still are deeply constrained by traditional tribal values that undermine their rights. For years, women in the MAs have been unaware of their rights and thus fail to recognise violations. Bano may have grown in these circumstances, but she sees a better future for herself and the many women around her now.
For people outside her region, this may not be extraordinary but a woman leaving home to learn about legal rights in the MAs of KP is no ordinary feat. Until 2018 and the merger of the (erstwhile) Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the adjoining KP province, District Mohmand was an agency of FATA which was administered through colonial-era laws.
Supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the legal awareness sessions arranged by UNDP, are on-going activities that began in December 2019 and continue till date. UNDP’s legal awareness sessions educate participants about fundamental rights including right to life, property and a fair trial, criminal and civil law, family law including law pertaining to marriages and divorce, custody of children and inheritance. The awareness sessions also educate participants on ways to report violations.
Since last year, over 1200 awareness raising sessions have been held, through which nearly 25,000 individuals have learnt about legal literacy, basic rights, and the formal justice system in MAs. Over 7000 women from Khyber, Bajaur and Mohmand District now know about their legal rights, human rights violations and how to report them.
On paper, it comes across as 25,000 individuals, but for communities where they come from, the impact is much larger. In reality, it is 25,000 homes, with many individuals, being made aware of their legal rights envisioning a better life for themselves.
These sessions are designed in a participatory way, asking different questions from the community and encouraging them to share their challenges and find legal solutions for them. They are informed about legal assistance options and introduced to pro bono help. While these sessions aim to create legal awareness, when the pandemic hit, an urgent need was to enlighten people about Covid-19 and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) to prevent it. The ongoing legal awareness sessions were then restructured, with lesser people in attendance in each of them and more social distancing. Their curriculum also included awareness about the pandemic and the various SOPs to observe in order to protect oneself and others.
Though creating awareness about legal rights is a great starting point of a larger process, it is not sufficient on its own. UNDP understands that and works on both the demand and supply side of the justice system. To increase access to justice for women in the MAs, legal aid committees have been established at District Bar associations. Those who need legal assistance are provided free legal aid through the Legal Aid Unit of KP Bar Council where pro bono lawyers offer support and take up their cases. Since 2019, 254 persons including 164 women in the MAs have benefited from the legal aid desks. And although this may be a small number, this is the beginning of people realising their legal rights.
60-year-old Afghan refugee, Fauzia* who has been living in Peshawar since many years, approached KP Bar Council’s Legal Aid Unit in September 2019 to share her painful story of domestic violence. She said that she had been beaten by her husband and sons and was kicked out of the house in injured condition only because she refused to be exploited and give her income to them. “I visited a local hospital to receive first aid and then ended up at a hotel, where the management gave me a room to spend two nights. At the hotel, somebody told me about the Legal Aid Unit, and I decided to visit,” she recalls.
The Legal Aid Unit not only consoled and gave her confidence but also counselled her about her legal options; register an FIR against her husband and sons and go to a shelter home. She did both and found herself at the Noor Education Trust shelter home at Hayatabad, Peshawar. After her registration, she was taken for treatment to a local hospital.
Her family tried to approach her, but she denied meeting them until a proper resolution was made. The Legal Aid Unit team closely followed the development in this case. Her husband and sons met her several times at the shelter home during her case and finally convinced her that she will not be mistreated in future by any of the family members. They signed a document at the shelter home committing that she will not be compelled to work as daily wager maid in other’s houses, and they will not exploit her for money and working as a daily wager.
The Legal Aid Unit followed up on her several times and contacted her to ensure that she was being treated properly by her family and if the issue has been resolved. “I am thankful that I was given the support needed in the situation,” enthuses Fauzia.
Many women in the Merged Areas and rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa face various kinds of domestic violence at the hands of different family members. While Fauzia faced violence by her husband and sons, Shazia*, a girl from Merged Areas, was harassed for marrying according to her choice. After marrying Aslam*, she then ran away with him from the district to escape the wrath of her family. Eventually, she was traced by law enforcement agencies who had been given information that Shazia was missing. Shazia was then sent to a Crisis Centre while Aslam sought help from the Legal Aid Unit for proper legal assistance to get Shazia released.
The Legal Aid Unit filed a petition for her release before the Judicial Magistrate Peshawar. Shazia presented herself before the court where her statement was recorded stating that she was legally an adult and could make her own decisions. She also stated that she wanted to reside with Aslam of her own free will. After a rejection and then a further appeal, Shazia won the case and was able to move in with Aslam.
While Fauzia and Shazia were able to overcome their challenges, there are many other women who are still struggling and many who are completely unaware of their rights in the first place. Thus, these legal awareness sessions in the Merged Areas are not only the first step but also a very pertinent one that helps many women get their due rights.
Scaling legal awareness sessions through trainings for Women Development Organisations
Educating individuals and encouraging them to pass on the learnings has been helpful but scaling up these efforts and hosting trainings for Women Development Organisations in the MAs has resulted in a ripple effect.
Since late 2019, seven Women Development Organisations have been trained in different districts of the MAs including Orakzai, Kurram and District Mohmand. These training sessions are spread over two or three days with varying number of women professionals in attendance. While the trainings are focused on legal literacy in the context of MAs, basic rights and formal justice system in MAs, they also introduce participants to rule of law and its various concepts, role of women development organisations in the project and how they can aid development amid other areas.
The legal awareness session, Bano and many other women and men in Mohmand District, Khyber, Bajaur and North and South Waziristan, attend are part of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan’s efforts under its Amn-o-Insaf Programme. The Amn-o-Insaf (Peace and Justice) Programme endeavours to strengthen both supply and demand sides of the rule of law and justice system. UNDP has been working in close collaboration with the government, rule of law and justice institutions to improve delivery of services to people, particularly women and other marginalised communities. Strengthening institutional capacity of the criminal justice actors, such as police, prosecution and courts is a key priority area of the Programme.
Alongside these efforts, UNDP is also creating legal awareness and enabling women, such as Bano, to gain knowledge about their legal rights and recognise violations. “I’ve been able to understand the problems I’m facing and find a solution for it after attending the legal awareness session hosted by UNDP. I also see so many people around me struggling without knowing that there can be an end to their misery by seeking legal help. I plan to share my learnings with them, so they can find solutions and address their challenges too,” shares Bano after attending the session.
One can’t help but admire the strength of the women of Pakistan. Defying all rules of a patriarchal society, they are empowering themselves with the knowledge of legal security that the state has given them, but which unawareness had kept them away from.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.