PESHAWAR:  Sisters Rifat and Jamila have come to the Peshawar District Bar to consult lawyers about their intentions to divorce their Afghan husbands.  Pakistani citizens from Peshawar, the sisters had both married brothers Sadeeq Akbar and Mujahid Akbar in 2010. When the Pakistan government launched its crackdown on Afghan refugees, the brothers decided to repatriate to their home country in May last year.  Both couples have three children each, and the husbands want to take the children to Afghanistan with them.

The sisters, however, are not prepared to leave Pakistan nor will they let their children go.

“We are not ready to leave our country and take our children to a strange country,” Riffat, covered in a black burqa, told Truth Tracker.

“We will  divorce  our husbands, but we will not go to Afghanistan.”

The sisters are poor and cannot afford to pay lawyers.

“A relative informed us to visit Free Information Desk in the District Peshawar Bar to consult lawyers about the divorce,” Riffat said.

The Free Information Desk at the Peshawar District Bar was launched by Blue Veins and the Peshawar District Bar Association. The main goal is to give underprivileged women access to justice through free information and resources.

“The initiative aims to provide adequate legal protection to women victims of all forms of gender based violence and discrimination, including domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking,”   Peshawar District Bar Association   Khushnood Zakirullah Begum, of the Peshawar District Bar Association, told Truth Tracker.

Begum assists women seeking justice, information and resources at the Free Information Desk .

According to a 2014 report by Aurat Foundation, one of the largest women rights’ organisations in Pakistan, 10,070 cases of violence against women (VAW) were reported nationwide in 2014. .

The level of violence had increased by 28.2% from the previous year, according to the Aurat Foundation report.   The majority of cases were recorded in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, which accounted for nearly 75 per cent of cases.   Sindh had the second highest incidence of violence against women with 14.37 per cent). In 736 cases were reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Islamabad and FATA, the number of cases reported were 736, 190, 140 and 5 respectively.

Rifat and Jamila need advice on resolving their disputes with their husbands over their plans to relocate their children to Afghanistan.

“The lawyers told us that they would call our husbands for negotiations and resolve our issue,” Jamila told Truth Tracker.

The Free Information Desk not only assists women with information but helps hire lawyers to settle issues of violence against women.

“First we studythe nature of the causes. Then we guide underprivileged women regarding their cause,” Begum said.

She said in the last ten months they had helpeded 60 women from Peshawar district by referring their cases to pro bono lawyers.

Under the initiative, said Begum, 30 members of the Peshawar District Bar including 20 women have been trained to sensitize fellow lawyers in gender friendly legal practices and to encourage them to take pro-bono cases. They are also working to consolidate a database of legal experts.

She said that the majority of cases related to domestic violence, or women wanting separation from husbands.

Tahira Kaleem, project manager at Blue Veins, told Truth Tracker that the organisation had established an inquiry committee against sexual harassment inside the District Bar Association. It is the first such initiative in the district courts since the enactment of the sexual harassment law six years ago.

However, some lawyers from the Bar criticized the work done under the project, saying it encouraged women to seek divorce instead of reconciliation and destroyed the lives of couples.

“I completely disagree with work of NGOs as they encourage women to seek separation and create hurdles in the way of reconciliation, so they can collect money from foreign donors,” a woman lawyer from the Peshawar District Bar told Truth Tracker, requesting not to be named.

“Couples need to consider compromise and reconciliation before considering something as drastic as separation and divorce. But NGOs encourage women to take the latter option in the name of their rights.” she said.

Qamar Naseem, Programme Coordinator for Blue Veins, said violence against women was the worst form of violation of human rights in Pakistan.

“Discriminatory treatment against women not only creates hurdles in social, political, economic and cultural fields, but also strips women of confidence,” he told Truth Tracker.

Naseem said women’s restricted access to justice in Pakistan, like any other country, is not a result of antiquated laws and the judiciary’s lack of ingenuity.

“It is a result of the interplay between various social, cultural, structural, instrumental and legal complexities and anomalies that can only be understood and addressed through a keen interdisciplinary analysis of the justice system and its gatekeepers.”

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