Islamabad — In early October, Nazia* was sent to her brother’s place along with her two daughters after her husband beat her.
Her brother heard about the Violence Against Women (VAW) Centre in Multan from a friend, and, on 5 October, he brought Nazia to the centre to report the domestic abuse she had faced.
Married for about nine years, Nazia wanted to reunite with her husband, even though he does not provide for her or their children.
“He was a cashier at a bank when we got married,” Nazia told Media for Transparency. “Later he was fired for fraud.”
Nazia’s siblings, who visited the centre with her, said she was only happy with him for the first couple of years.
“When he lost his job, we started supporting her (financially),” her brother said.
Nazia was adamant, however, to resolve the ongoing issues in her household. She felt the centre’s intervention could help her sort things out.
“I just want to find happiness with my family,” she said.
She was not entirely wrong in pinning her hopes on the centre. The Multan VAW centre, established in 2017 by the Punjab government, offers mediation and rehabilitation services. In the nearly two years since its formation, its mediation department has handled over 180 cases.
But for many, the centre’s primary appeal perhaps is its ability to provide a safe environment for women to report to the police incidents of violence against them.
Two domestic violence cases were filed every day on average at the Multan VAW centre during 2017 and 2018, according to officials at the centre. Around 65% of the 2,661 VAW incidents reported to the centre were related to domestic violence.
“Domestic violence was one area which was not very highly reported in the past,” said Fatima Khan, an associate at the Punjab government’s Lahore-based Social Reforms Unit, which supervises the Multan VAW centre.
Fatima said women were usually told not to file police cases against domestic abuse in the past.
“The centre has proven that women want to get justice,” she said.
THE CENTRE’S WORK
The Multan VAW Centre was established as part of the support measures for women survivors of violence mandated by the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016.
The centre offers support through four departments: a women police station, prosecution department, mediation and rehabilitation, and health services.
Fatima said the availability of all these services in one building mean women do not need to run between different government institutions to seek justice.
Muneeza Butt, the head of mediation and rehabilitation at the VAW centre, said access to all kinds of support are made available to women at the centre.
“When a woman enters the facility and by the time she leaves here, we have made sure everything required by her is under this roof,” she told Media for Transparency.
Fatima said the centre has hired all female staff who are not only sensitised but also accommodate the survivours.
Up until November, the centre has received 2,661 cases. The cases registered vary in nature from sexual and physical abuse to life threats and fraud.
The police station located within the centre is led by Deputy Superintendent Police Shabina Kareem. The police station has received the most cases among the four departments of the centre. Out of the 1,714 cases referred to the police, only eight were still in process up until 10 November.
“Now all cases pertaining to women issues from all over the district are referred to our police station,” Fatima said. “This ensures that the case is registered and a legal procedure followed.”
The health department is also a declared medico-legal facility complete with a mini-operation theatre, technical labs, radiologists, and wards.
Note: The number of cases for each department in the above illustration are not unique as the centre sometimes forwards a single case to multiple departments.
When a survivor enters the facility, she has to first get cleared by the security, which is an all women team. The security staff take notes of the survivor’s ID card and other personal details. If she does not have one, the ID of her companion is noted.
“We need to have the details of at least one companion in case the survivor becomes unresponsive during the process,” the security desk told Media for Transparency.
The survivor then proceeds to the entrance desk, where her statement is recorded. The centre records the statements on camera and fills an application form with the statement and the steps she wishes to undertake for her case. The statement is double-checked by the desk to ensure if any correction is needed.
“Sometimes women come in with a story and change their statements later,” an officer at the centre’s front desk said. “(The written statement) is to protect the centre and the rights of the women also.”
Once the paperwork is done, the women can follow the process they have chosen.
“Our front desk team guides them about all plans of action they can take for all scenarios,” Muneeza said. “They are then taken to the respective department where their case can commence.”
The centre’s management also clarified that they do not strictly follow the procedure depending on the circumstances.
“If a survivor needs immediate medico-legal help, we do not ask her to record her statement first, but take her to the medical area to get her first aid,” Muneeza said.
If no immediate help is need, the women are directed to the rehabilitation department where they are comforted and a course of action is planned for them. Of the three psychologists at the centre, one is assigned to a survivor to provide her counsel and educate her about her privileges, according to the centre’s officials.
Once the initial process is done, they can either go to the police or prosecution department to file a case or to the mediation department where the accused and two witnesses from each side who they trust or play a major role in the couple’s life are called.
“Sometimes even the family of the accused and survivor are assessed by the psychologist to understand the dynamics of the family and how to tackle the issue,” Muneeza said.
Before they are called by the department, the case is sent to the prosecution department to be developed. The prosecution department tries to determine if the survivor wants a divorce or monthly loans and wants to live separately.
After the case is developed, it is sent again to the mediation department where the mediation process starts.
During or before the process, both the victim and the accused are evaluated by the psychology department.
“It is essential for us to evaluate and assess the couple to understand where the problem lies in the relationship,” Muneeza said. “In some cases we have seen that because one of the partner is actually a patient of mental health, the marital life is uneasy.”
She said the centre’s staff try and explain to the parties involved how to better deal with the situation.
In the mediation process, the couple, along with two witnesses, discuss the terms and conditions for a better marriage and are obligated to follow the rules they agreed too.
“We get them to sign a stamp paper,” an officer in the mediation department explained.
The case is circulated between the departments to cover all bases for the survivors, according to the centre’s officials.
The same process was followed for Nazia’s case. As she only wanted to mediate her case, her husband was called. When the process was completed and both the parties signed the papers, Nazia’s husband was supposed to take her home.
“He told us that he will pick her once he drops his father off at home,” Nazia’s brother said. “But it has been almost a month now and he hasn’t picked her up.”
Muneeza said that the case is not closed yet as Nazia called again asking what she needs to do.
“We have started the process again,” she said. “We deal such cases for up to a year.”
Nazia’s husband has been making excuses to not take her home. Her family believes he is planning to extort more money by doing so.
“He claimed to be sick or that his bike wasn’t working and other such excuses,” Nazia’s brother said. “We call him time and again to come and talk to us as to why is he not taking his wife home as per the signed deal but he says do whatever you want.”
Muneeza said sometimes women return to the centre after the mediation process but the centre cannot help them if the mediation fails.
“We have our limitations,” she said.
Women can also take the next course of action by filing a case in the family court.
Nazia, who works at a school now, said she and her daughters are living at a relative’s house temporarily but might not be able to continue living there longer. She wants to file a lawsuit against her husband for monthly allowance. Even though her struggle continues, he brother said the centre helped his sister a lot.
“We did not know about her rights or how to defend her,” he said. “The centre taught us that.”
But the centre’s ability to help more survivors is also at risk.
CENTRE IN CRISIS
On paper, the centre’s performance seems impressive. But the staff is dealing with severe financial issues, according to officials.
Since July 2018, the centre’s entire staff has not been paid salaries by the Punjab government. The staff, which is employed by the government on contractual terms, has continued to work on a pro bono basis, according to officials.
“It is hard, but we know that the work we are doing here and the job is irreplaceable,” Muneeza told Media for Transparency.
The police department works under the city police office of Multan so they have not faced any issues in terms of salaries, but the other departments are struggling.
The prosecution department appears to have suffered the most. The centre has two prosecutors and a clerk, but it used to have a panel of seven dedicated lawyers who worked on cases for the centre at the family court.
Since July 2018, the centre has not been receiving funds and is forced to work with little or no resources.
“There is a major delay in court cases because we have no funding,” Fatima, the Social Reforms Unit associate, said.
The team of lawyers were the first to cease operations after the budget was stopped, according to officials.
“Filing a case and working on it required a minimum payment of Rs. 10,000, which were spent on the clerical work which the centre cannot afford anymore,” an official at the centre’s prosecution department said.
Fatima said a lot of cases are stuck and the centre cannot take further prosecution cases at the moment.
The management said that even though it is common for government institutions to expect gaps in pays, it had become impossible for the lawyers to operate.
“We used to get about 10 to 12 cases per day and then we would make files at the centre and send it for further proceedings,” Sultana, a prosecutor, told Media for Transparency.
Because of the workload and lack of findings, the lawyers have backed out until their contracts are renewed.
Sultana said they now ask survivors to find their own lawyers.
“Mostly the women cannot afford one and end up becoming victims again,” she said.
Officials at the centre said they are constantly in contact with the top management to resolve the ongoing issues.
“There is clarity that the project will continue,” Fatima said. “The issue will be sorted soon.”
*Survivor’s name has been changed to protect her identity.