Changing Mindsets in Pakistan: Mr. Salman Sufi on the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act

Salman Sufi is Director General at the Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit within the Punjab government, which works as a think tank for the Punjab Chief Minister. Since 2014, Mr. Sufi has introduced, designed and implemented more than 30 groundbreaking reforms across the Punjab province. He has been instrumental in drafting and enacting the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016. This ambitious and progressive law is the first comprehensive legislation passed in Pakistan with its own implementation mechanism in the form of Violence Against Women Centers (VAWC) which are one-stop shops that provide legal, medical, counseling, and other services to women who are victims of violence. In 2016-2017, Mr. Sufi worked with the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School to make sure that the standard operating procedures enforced at VAWC are consistent with international human rights standards.

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Mr. Sufi, you were the driving force in developing and implementing the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act (VAWA). How did you get involved?

In the conservative Pakistani society, women experience the world differently. I have tried to identify the difficulties that women face and the reasons that find women subordinated in Pakistan. One of the main problems lies in the lengthy and humiliating procedures that women have to undergo to report any form of violence, as well as the fact that subsequent conviction rates are extremely low. In 2014, the Punjab Chief Minister invited me to work on this issue, and I decided to volunteer with him. He proposed building an establishment where all victims of violence can be processed under one roof – a system that is tailored to the needs of women. Punjab Chief Minister has provided instrumental support at every step to make sure that the reforms are implemented in their true spirit.

What does the Act involve and in what way is it exceptional?

VAWA is the most comprehensive legislation passed in the history of Pakistan. It incorporates proper implementation processes in the form of Violence Against Women Centers to ensure that the incidence of violence against women crimes is reduced. The VAWA covers all incidents of violence such as sexual, domestic, physical, economic, cyber, or psychological abuse. The central piece of the Act is the establishment of a Violence Against Women Center: We provide a police reporting, police investigation, first aid, medical treatment and medical examination, legal aid as well as post trauma rehabilitation all under one roof. There is a toll-free 24 hours phone number; women can register any case of violence immediately. They have access to forensic and medical checks, post-trauma specialists, psychologists as well as prosecutors. Furthermore, we introduced expedited civil remedies that are faster than a court process. The protection order allows for the issuance of an immediate restraining order. For example, the VAWA act has introduced electronic ankle bracelets to enforce such protection via restraining orders. The monetary order declares that nobody can take a woman’s self-earned money, and the residence order dictates the right to shelter if a woman has been kicked out by her husband or her family. In addition, if the case is not too violent, VAWA provides mediation services as a mechanism to reach a resolution. All conversations are recorded, and if no solution can be found, the case moves on to the court. A special software connects all departments, with every change being logged to track later changes. All staff members are female, in order to create a safe environment for women.

It took 1.5 years to draft the legislation, and three years from the initial idea to the inauguration of the first Violence Against Women Center on March 25th of this year. Who was most opposed or supportive of your project, and how did you get the reform approved?

I found that it was mainly a question of communicating how we wanted to make it easier for women to file charges and receive help, in a way that does not increase stigma and shame. It is also a misconception that religious groups were generally against the reform. Most of the opponents simply never received perfect information regarding the ways in which the government wanted to deal with the issue. By now, religious groups are rather with us than against us. Abuse has already been legally defined; the civil remedy process was the new policy directive that needed elaboration. Intentionally, the words men, husband or brother are not mentioned in the law, the persecutor can assume any gender. Following our engagement, this law was heavily debated in parliament as opposed to just being voted on—this provided politicians with an empowering platform to address opposition to the reform. The act was passed unanimously on February 24, 2016.

You mentioned that the biggest challenge is to change the mindset that it is permissible to subject women and mistreat them. How can we drive change?

Violence against women is sometimes perceived as a women’s issue. Female victims often get blamed for being a victim. It is a basic right to be secure! In a conservative society, young girls accept the rules of being less self-determined than men, and any attempt to be more independent disturbs the status quo. But it is important to challenge these norms. Basic economics tells you that it is a social benefit to incorporate 49% of society in the market. Of course, whenever there is positive change, there is opposition: that tells you that you are on the right track and not just perpetuating the status quo. We drive change in addressing women, men and children: Part of our reform is the “women on wheels” program, where we teach women to drive motorbikes. One big driver of women’s submissive role is the fact that they always rely on their male counterparts—it is my opinion that with mobility comes agency and the possibility of holding progressive beliefs. In many cases, they committed crimes against women, knowing full well that they could get away with it. The most important initiative remains to educate children – about any issue of adult life. Leaving young generations to learn on their own always backfires, as at a young age, negative experiences attract them the most. Slowly but increasingly, gender topics are addressed in official books in public schools. Lastly, we create awareness via art performances, NGOs, colleges, etc. We need to engage and empower society, it is everyone’s issue, not just women’s problems.

Your first center just opened two months ago. What are the biggest successes and challenges so far?

We were positively surprised by the immediate response to the opening of our first center. Approximately six hundred people attended our inauguration ceremony, and more than 100 victims came to the center in the first two weeks to seek support. We worked hard to raise awareness before the opening, and it seems that women now feel confident in coming forward. We need to keep encouraging women to not fear repercussions once they speak out, but this is exactly what the center has been built for. On a practical side, in line with our expectations, it remains difficult to prevent frictions between departments and administrative roadblocks.

What is your vision for the future?

I dream of an equal system to address violence against women in all countries. Imagine the impact if all countries work together and learn from each other. The international response we have received has been extremely positive. It is worth noting that even in developed countries, different branches that address violence against women are disconnected: Lawyers, doctors and psychologists that support women who experienced violence rarely ever collaborate in doing so. Recently, I have been in touch with Oslo, the capital of Norway, and they will most likely replicate our center. Also, we have to empower the youth to get involved, not just on paper! Universities should develop more cooperative projects such as the Law Clinic here at The University of Chicago, where analytical thinking is combined with real problem solving.

Featured photo: cc/(gaborbasch, photo ID: 493552926, from iStock by Getty Images)

Laura Bergedieck
Laura (MPP ’17) takes care of CPR's outreach to current and potential readers and manages the social media team. She previously serves as Staff Writer in the Energy & Environment section. She is interested in energy and climate policy, migration and organizational management. Previously, she worked at the international non-profit organization CDP, driving climate change solutions with businesses, investors and European governments.

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