Help for women prisoners

Women prisoners in Pakistan need help, a contribution to the legal aid office would be a donation to a worthy cause.


Anwer Mooraj September 22, 2010

On the very few occasions that this writer visited prisons in Karachi and Lahore he couldn’t see any perceptible change in conditions. There were the usual scraggy and unkempt under-trial prisoners huddled together in under-ventilated concrete blocks, peering out of stingy and soot filled windows, eating bad food and rubbing shoulders with convicted thieves, murderers, coughing consumptives, drug smugglers and foreigners whose visas had expired and who had overstayed their welcome in the land of the pure. And all co-existed under the watchful eye of shabby, seedy and tiredly corrupt prison staff.

Jails in the subcontinent always had a touch of fin-de-siècle decadence and it would take a bold spirit to predict with any confidence that the picture was likely to change in the near future. Conditions became relatively better in the jails reserved for females after a committee for the welfare of women prisoners was constituted and the Legal Aid Office was established by the Karachi Women Prisoners Welfare Society in July 2004.

Much of the credit for this goes to the team headed by a retired Cambridge-educated judge, Mr Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, a former chief justice of the Sindh High Court who was subsequently elevated to the Supreme Court. He conjugated the rigours of his calling and now presides over legal aid offices in 22 jails in the country which provide officially authorised assistance to women prisoners free of cost.

On August 12, 2005, on a visit to the women’s section of the Karachi Central jail, this writer was appalled to discover that out of 113 under-trial prisoners (UTPs) 59 of the inmates didn’t have a clue as to why they had been locked up. They had been hauled up under the repressive Hudood Ordinances, gifted to the nation by Pakistan’s most retrogressive and obscurantist dictator Ziaul Haq, who represented the quintessence of intellectual dishonesty. Current figures for Sindh are 127 UTPs and convicts, and for the Punjab 829 UTPs and convicts.   .

Before the Zina Ordinance was repealed all a man had to do if he wanted to get rid of his wife, was to tell the SHO at the nearest police station that he suspected her of infidelity, and the policeman, acting under clause 10(2) of the Ordinance, would lock up the poor woman and throw away the key. It was as simple as that. Unfortunately, in a country of misogynistic paternalism, the issue had a citrus-lined sense of the absurd, because the false accusers were never punished. Today a complainant has to appear before a judge along with four witnesses. Is it any wonder the number of such accusations has now dropped to zero?

The legal aid office performs a whole raft of services which include comprehensive data on prison admissions, releases, convictions, sentences and demographic details which etch a scorching account of humanitarian frustration. The office provides competent counsel on an ongoing basis; streamlines procedures; improves conditions inside all prisons; ensures the welfare of under-trial and convicted women prisoners and the children who live with their mothers within the four walls.

These are destitute and desperate women who see the jail as a permanent address. They have been abandoned by their families and have a bleak future. Incarceration is just the beginning of a prolonged ordeal. They need help. A contribution to the legal aid office would be a donation to a truly worthy cause.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2010.

COMMENTS (1)

temporal | 11 years ago | Reply anwer: doubt if anything has changed! On August 12, 2005, on a visit to the women’s section of the Karachi Central jail, this writer was appalled to discover that out of 113 under-trial prisoners (UTPs) 59 of the inmates didn’t have a clue as to why they had been locked up.
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