News & events

Justice for all: mobilising change in Pakistan

18 October 2018

The dispute resolution council listens to the community's grievances at Mardan, KPK in the northwestern region of the country. ©Aftab Ahmed/Saferworld

“The formal justice system has always been out of reach for the poor and marginalised. It’s too complex, expensive and time consuming.” - Mehnaz Liaquat, community group member, Charsadda district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Historically, formal justice systems across Pakistan have been too complex and expensive for most people, often excluding women and other people who are marginalised. On the other hand, a parallel informal system (not recognised by the state) is manipulated by the powerful and wealthy, often punishes victims instead of perpetrators, and promotes oppressive customs. As a result, many people living in rural communities don’t trust these institutions nor do they have a full understanding of their own rights.

In 2001, Pakistan’s government formally recognised a third channel of justice in a bid to address a growing demand across the country. Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms are semi-formal groups such as community policing committees, which are recognised by the state but which are neither formal nor informal. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, they are known as dispute resolution councils (DRCs).

In 2017, Saferworld and partner RAHBAR in KPK set up 27 community groups with the purpose of training them to help DRCs strengthen their bonds with communities and become more effective, in turn empowering citizens and improving their access to justice.

Each of these groups are made up of around 20 members including men, women and representatives of marginalised groups such as the disabled, religious minorities and transgender persons – groups that are often denied their constitutional rights. The community groups help increase awareness of legal rights and ways in which people can engage with semi-formal justice providers.

The first step in this five-year project was building the skills of the groups to act as champions within their communities through trainings on human rights, women and minority rights, local government acts and the state-recognised justice mechanisms available at the governance levels in KPK such as dispute resolution councils and public safety commissions under the Police Act.

“These trainings have informed us of our rights and the ways in which to fight for them in a free and fair way”, said Najma Sahar, a community group member from Nowshera district, KPK. “It’s been a liberating experience that we are now sharing with our communities who lack the resources and connections to go to formal courts.”

“The response from communities has been overwhelming – particularly from the women”, said Asia Khattak, a RAHBAR field officer. “They are eager to know more: for example, who are the duty providers? How do they access them? What are the inheritance laws in Pakistan? And how can they cast their votes in elections?”

Training on gender mainstreaming, inclusivity, human and minority rights in Peshawar, the capital of KPK province. ©Aftab Ahmed/Saferworld

The community groups have to be innovative in how they mobilise people, as communications in rural areas can be patchy. Regular group meetings also serve as safe spaces for people to raise concerns and discuss problems they’ve faced in accessing justice. 

But it hasn’t always been easy for some group members to share knowledge. Some communities were suspicious of change, particularly that encouraged by non-governmental organisations. To overcome distrust, RAHBAR used its grass-root connections with the community to build trust and proactively engage with people on their thoughts and concerns, especially around the group’s formation.

“Other challenges have included promoting gender-sensitive thinking in a traditionally conservative context”, said Naveed Jan, project manager from RAHBAR. “To address this, separate spaces have sometimes been provided for men and women to feel at ease, while the trainings are decided in consultation with women and girls to ensure their participation”.

Nonetheless, communities already show increased understanding and support of semi-formal justice providers, citing the lack of fees and quick turn-around on cases. This has particularly affected women whose lack of understanding of legal rights, restricted mobility and culture of family honour greatly impacts their access to justice. The cases of women who do seek legal resolution are often left pending for decades.

Training on justice provision in local government acts and related frameworks for community groups in Nowshera, KPK. ©Aftab Ahmed/Saferworld

The next step for the community groups will be expanding the skills of the semi-formal justice providers themselves, ensuring they are sensitive to gender norms, and that they follow through on human rights-based service provision. This is already happening through regular meetings between the groups and justice providers to discuss concerns that marginalised groups want to share.

This gives us hope for better times”, said Bahader Sher, a community group member in Mardan district, KPK. “I hope that one day all of us will have equal access to justice in Pakistan.

Since January 2017, Saferworld in Pakistan has been working in a consortium with partners on a five-year project to improve citizen access to justice. The aim is to equip communities, particularly the marginalised such as women and young people, with knowledge of their legal and constitutional rights, and the skills to address injustices.