Pakistan: Waiting for justice


by Sofia Khan

In Pakistan, justice is unapologetically a man’s terrain. Police stations and courts are considered detrimental to the reputation of a respectable Pakistani female. Pakistan’s justice system is widening the gender gap, fuelling the country’s reputation of inequality.

Domestic violence is endemic. It is estimated that up to 90% of women in Pakistan have suffered some form of abuse. Many women do not seek justice, and those that do, go through local community resolution committees.

These committees, which can have more clout than formal courts, are led by respected elders who are believed to possess profound wisdom, which increases with age. An elder often makes decisions because he is taken seriously by both aggrieved parties. Formal justice is often avoided because of financial obstacles and huge administrative backlogs – court proceedings are generally a last resort.

With the rise of terrorism, community-based dispute resolution has increased. Police have adopted a more militarised role, which prevents them from addressing petty and domestic crime. This is the case in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – one of Pakistan’s four provinces with a history of major militancy and terrorism.

Dispute resolution bodies are often run by volunteers. Their motivations are mixed: they may be involved for religious reasons (out of devotion), hereditary (their forefathers were traditional leaders), political (a need to influence society) or they have a genuine desire to help others (normally those who have themselves formerly suffered injustice).

A traditional assembly of leaders, known as jirgas, gather in a drawing room for male guests of the community elder. This is where community resolutions take place. Women are rarely involved – a wife or sister of a jirga leader may be present, particularly when the case involves a woman. jirgas do not interact directly with women; female family members act as intermediaries.

At jirga meetings, disputes such as notorious honour killing have been resolved. The solution may include swara, where young girls are forcibly married to members of different tribes and clans to resolve feuds. The conflict is said to be forever resolved as both parties are bonded through marriage. The reality is that the girl – often too young – is married to someone in the victim’s family irrespective of age or compatibility. She is an instrument, enslaved and void of choice and identity.

The government of Pakistan has officially banned swara, but it still happens. The main reason for the ban is because women have started speaking up and those who have been offered as swara have called the police, resulting in entire jirga panels being arrested in police raids. Information is power for these women, and providing them with information about their rights is critical to stop swara for good.

The provincial government recognises the bias and danger of jirga leaders, and is trying to minimise their control. They have created an impartial dispute resolution council (DRC) situated in local police stations to bridge formal and informal systems and making justice more accessible to women. So far, this seems to be working: thousands of women have visited their local DRC to submit cases.

The consistent monitoring and documentation of informal justice is essential to ensure decisions are kept in line with the constitution of Pakistan. If effective, formalised community justice systems will also decrease the crippling burden on ineffective court systems. Efficient, capable and fair justice is desperately needed, even for the slightest and pettiest of crimes – this is often what escalates relentless conflict and can lead to both victim and perpetrator committing more dangerous crimes.