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Women’s Centres in Pakistan

Shutting the doors?

by Afiya S. Zia, 18 December 2011

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The News International

November 21, 2011

A few months ago, the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), chaired by the seasoned women’s/human rights activist, Anis Haroon, authorised an independent, nation-wide study on the 26 Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women’s Centres (SBBWCs). Completed in October 2011, the unambiguous conclusion of this study was that the SBBWCs provide a crucial and invaluable service to women victims of gender-based violence.

The study finds that “such institutions need active and considerable support from all provincial governments, women’s rights groups, civil society and NGOs. While there is considerable need to reform and integrate the existing centres with other services provided to women by provincial governments, closure of the centres is not an option”.

According to a newspaper report (Nov 14) and in direct contradiction to the advice of the government’s own commission, many of these centres are now face impending closure. It seems this government is intent on acting as its own worst enemy and remains a victim of paralysis in decision-making. The centres have outstanding dues owed by the federal government accumulated prior to the Devolution of the Ministry of Women’s Development (MoWD) in June 2011. This has been exacerbated further due to the unwillingness of the provincial governments to release subsequent funds to ensure the survival of the centres, post-devolution.

The outright refusal of the Punjab government to “own” the Punjab SBBWCs and now the impending closure of the SBBWCs in Sindh, means the discontinuity of one of the few social services that were still functioning, however imperfectly, in the country.

The efforts of the minister at the Women’s Development Department in Balochistan and the lobbying of the manager and staff in the Quetta centre have resulted in an admirable resolution of the crisis in their province for the time being. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa’s fate hangs in the balance. The centres have survived despite a variegated history. Set up first as the Women’s Crisis Centres (1997), these centres changed ideologically when they were re-organised as Family Protection and Rehabilitation Centres under the Musharraf regime in 2005.

Contrary to the news report (Nov 14), these centres were not renamed the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women’s Centres by the Sindh government after devolution this year but in fact as soon as the PPP government came into power in 2008.

Since they now function only as a referral service, this has limited the possibilities of what these centres could reasonably deliver. However, as the NCSW study shows through empirical and ethnographic evidence, these centres are “crucial first-stop referral centres that identify the victim, her needs, counsel her, document the nature of the case and refer her to the appropriate authorities. This enables a quick, needs-based response. Other institutions, such as the police, are only required to register cases and dar ul amans simply offer shelter to court referred cases and are commonly considered to function as “sub-jails”. Edhi centres are charity based rather than professional resolution centres; faith based private shelters have their own notion of destitute women or are not neutral in their approach to rehabilitation. Private/NGO shelters are few and do not have the outreach or capacity as government institutions.”

Under the federal set-up, these centres have historically suffered the usual bureaucratic inefficiencies, such as late release of funds, as well as no meaningful monitoring nor comprehensive in-depth evaluation. Some NGOs, such as Rozan and AGHS/Dastak, have worked with the MoWD in improving the standard operating procedures at the centres. However, the real crisis came to a head after the devolution of the Ministry of Women’s Development in June 2011.

Devolution signalled the rude awakening over the dangers of running women’s policies as never-ending ‘development schemes’ rather than as permanent policy with regularised staff. Some critics observe that despite high moments, the MoWD ran for too long as a glorified NGO and from project to project. Since they were not permanent schemes, the SBBWCs in three provinces hung in limbo as governments attempted to absorb them into the provincial administrative set-ups. Punjab, meanwhile, refused to own the SBBWCs and made a technically reasonable, if misguided, case over the historically disinterested attitude of the federal government itself with regard to these centres.

Interestingly, the women MPAs of the Punjab assembly have supported and continue to lobby for the case of retaining the SBBWCs, despite disowning by the male leadership of their provincial government. This is a remarkable show of political maturity and autonomous women’s politics. But they lack support from other women, as well as lazy or disinterested male colleagues.

After Punjab’s refusal to take charge, the Ministry of Human Rights in Islamabad has agreed to tide over the Punjab centres until June 2012. But others are questioning why such anti-women political decisions by the Punjab government are being rescued and rewarded by the federal government. Such exceptionalism does not bear well for the future of provincial autonomy or for long-term political harmony amongst provinces.

In many ways, these centres are examples of the kind of institution building that is often endorsed in theory by analysts in Pakistan. The administrative investment towards improving these centres has included a partnership with the private/NGO sector, which has worked quite well in most cases. The centres have survived and been supported by successive governments who despite oppositional policies, have always retained the centres in view of their services.

The SBBWCs have also established strong community linkages, especially during the period when the local government system was active and the nazim/councillors worked closely with them in rehabilitating women seeking resolution of their cases. Although a detailed cost-effective evaluation has not been done, a cursory calculation suggests the centres offer a service that is more than cost-beneficial.

The SBBWCs act as the first interface for walk-in or referred victims of violence and those suffering post-traumatic experiences who need a very sensitive and responsive approach, rather than the more officious police response or matter-of-fact institutional response of dar ul amans.

Also, the services that the SBBWCs offer, aim at resolution, not institutionalisation of victims. These centres offer immediate and independent legal aid rather than court-referred legal assistance, which is what dar ul amans do. The myth that these centres duplicate the work of the dar ul amans is something the Punjab government has to stop hiding behind.

For the usual critics, who point out the proportionately low number of women who access such services, the NCSW study would be educational. Women survivors of violence only tend to approach such services when the male dominated community justice system fails them. They know that to breach the community’s norms and defy male determined arrangements, such as forced marriages, domestic and reproductive exploitation comes at a huge price and they can never go back. That’s the kind of brave women who seeks the state’s refuge.

The voices of the beneficiaries in this study show that women survivors are showing a preference to circumvent community mediation and approaching the state institutions directly, such as the courts or the SBBWCs. This is significant because it shows faith in the state.

The NCSW study also provides alternative models that have evolved by way of the Panah shelter in Karachi and the lessons that can be imbibed from Dastak in Lahore or Mera Ghar in Peshawar. The point is that these running institutions can be improved and upgraded by sharpening and even extending services through linkages with lady health workers, other dispute-resolution efforts and documentation of women survivors’ experiences. But to shut down this network is simply a sign of defeat and lack of commitment to women’s issues.

This is an important electoral matter that the provincial governments can legitimately exploit rather than succumb to short-term financial obstacles that are usually deliberately created by disinterested and myopic male bureaucrats.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia...The writer is an independent researcher


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use