Approximately 5,000 women die at the hands of domestic violence in Pakistan each year, and thousands more are maimed or disabled. In the socially conservative country, justice is heavily compromised as the reporting of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence carries a social stigma, the prosecution process is biased and fragmented, and the conviction rate is just 1-2.5%. In 2014, global conflict advisor Hafsah Lak asked herself: what can we do to provide survivors a real and effective justice delivery system? While working at the Punjab Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit (formerly, known as Special Monitoring Unit - Law and Order) in Punjab, Pakistan, she co-drafted the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2016 and Punjab Women Protection Authority Act 2017. When the former Act was passed into law, it was hit with heavy conservative backlash. Recognizing that reform cannot be carried out by people who do not share the vision, Lak worked as a project lead at the Strategic Reforms Unit to create Pakistan's first-ever Violence Against Women Center (VAWC), which opened on March 25, 2017 and has successfully resolved over 900 cases of violent crimes against women thus far. The VAWC has streamlined the case file process all under one roof (removing all roadblocks to reporting crimes) and is staffed by at least 60 all-female staff including 30 female police officers, 5 female medical officers, plus dedicated prosecutors and psychologists who were hired for their commitment to protecting women, and to providing a real deterrent for perpetrators of gender-based violent crimes. For more information, go to vawcpunjab.com.
Hafsah Lak: I am Hafsah Lak and for the past three years I’ve been working with the Strategic Reforms Unit at the Punjab Chief Minister's Office in Pakistan on violence against women and women involvement reforms.
The existing case file process to give justice to these victims is so fragmented and disconnected. The victim first has to go to a police station to register a crime, then a medical treatment facility to get first aid treatment or medical examination conducted. The medical examination has to be conducted within 48 hours so that the evidence can actually be used in the court to prove that the violence has been taking place.
They don’t have access to these medical facilities, and because they don’t have that there is no proof that the crime actually took place. Then there’s forensics, then the prosecution, then court and so forth. So the victims fail to actually go ahead and prosecute crimes. Reporting decreases tremendously because of the fragmented case process.
I mean back in those days—this is the summer of 2014—we were hearing reports of how female victims were dousing themselves with petrol and then setting themselves on fire in front of police stations just to gain attention from the media and other stakeholders to get their voices heard, to get their cases registered in the police station in the first place, let alone an investigation into the case and getting the perpetrator to justice, but just getting a first information report, a police report registered.
And that got us thinking: what can we do to facilitate the victims as much as possible, to provide them a comprehensive justice delivery system? And back then they decided to have discussions on our commitment to a violence against women center and what it should look like. Back in the summer of 2014 this was just an idea: providing all the victims justice delivery services under one roof to streamline the case and process to make sure that they’re getting justice—and then by providing them justice and increasing the conviction rate, creating a deterrence in society to prevent such crimes in the first place.
And since 2014—we’ve been working on it since 2014—we launched our pilot Violence Against Women Center on March 25, 2017, and we’ve received more than a thousand victims in these last six months, and we’ve been providing them all sorts of services and we’ve actually successfully resolved more than 800 of these cases.
That just shows the need for such centers and reforms in a conservative society like Pakistan or in regions like Pakistan where there is a high prevalence of gender-based violence crimes and there is a pertinent need to have a comprehensive strategic solution to address those issues.
While we were in consultation deliberations of how to make the reform comprehensive we also decided to give the centers a legislative cover, and that’s when we started drafting the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016.
Now, this act is the first of its kind in Pakistan because it provides civil remedies to the victims, and it’s not just a provision of civil remedies—which I’ll talk about in a bit—but also having an implementation mechanism to make sure that these remedies are enforced.
So when we were researching—and you would have seen this time and time again in the news as well—the Pakistan government or these provincial governments are coming up with various reforms to address violence against women, to have women empowerment reforms and you have these empowerment initiatives coming from civil society as well. But the issue is that all of these reforms are relying on the existing structure to get them implemented. The existing system which we’ve seen is not delivering justice and it is not providing justice to the victims.
To have innovative reforms implemented properly you need to have a completely different system which is in line with the vision with which the reform was thought of. And also for every innovative reform you need to have a specific mindset to implement them, and to implement this legislation and to implement these centers we needed to have a completely new system which was staffed with human resource individuals who were sensitized towards this issue and who wanted to bring a change. We personally interviewed more than 600 candidates and our sole criterion was not only the expertise in their respective fields but also how sensitized they were towards the issue. Even if the victim was sexually assaulted by her husband or by her boyfriend she is a victim here and needs to be dealt with properly, and professionally, in a sensitized manner. So that was our first and foremost criteria: how sensitized they were towards the issue.
So I’m coming back and talking about the implementation mechanism again. So we’ve seen that all these existing structures have failed to provide justice because their mindset is not aligned with the progressive vision to make sure that the new innovative reforms are implemented and victims are provided justice.
So then that’s where VAWC (Violence Against Women Centre) comes in the picture. It’s the most comprehensive system that’s been designed and implemented. In fact, it is South Asia’s first of its kind center that’s been designed and implemented, and its sole task is to streamline the whole case process, to provide justice to survivors of gender-based violence, but also provide them with post-trauma rehabilitation and then assimilate them into society and basically make them independent.