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Success story: How a news story won a gang-rape victim justice

By Farahnaz ZahidiPublished: January 2, 2014

KARACHI:
“We are poor people. We never expected to get justice. We are all so happy that at least the culprits have been punished. Thank you, adi (sister). The story your newspaper published had a strong impact, as did the pressure from rights activists. We got justice,” says a grateful and emotional *T, husband of a gang-rape victim in Tharparkar some three months after the horrific incident.
From the time when *M was raped till the verdict came, T and his family went through hell. The motive behind the crime turned out to be some men of their own community in Tharparkar getting back at each other. It ended in *M getting gang raped in front of her husband and children some three months ago. “We are grateful, though even 14 years is not enough punishment for what they did. No punishment is enough,” says T, satisfied with the justice but not yet healed of the trauma.
“This is such a success story. It is cause to celebrate. The credit goes a 100 per cent to the joint efforts of the media, civil society and rights activists,” says a delighted Amar Sindhu who was very much involved in the activism behind the case. Sindhu represents the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and is a member of the Sindh Human Rights Commission. She added that the popular perception of locals is that if the media highlights an issue, justice follows. Sindhu and others like her played an important role by guiding the victim and her family to get justice through legal procedures.

“The prominent coverage given by The Express Tribune to the issue really helped, along with human rights activists who brought spotlight to the issue. Authorities had no option but to take this case seriously after the pressure was applied. Media, in general, played a good role in this case,” says Ali Akbar, Executive Director, Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) in Tharparkar. According to Akbar, he heard from the local authorities and regional language media confirmed that the Chief Justice took notice of the case, and that helped expedite the police’s prompt action in arresting the perpetrators.
In an encouraging turn of events and an unusual case of culprits actually getting punished, the eight men who committed the heinous crime have each been awarded 14 years prison term by the anti-terrorism court in Mirpurkhas. “Because the perpetrators used weapons, we were advised by a lawyer that the case should go to the anti-terrorism court from the district and sessions judge,” said Akbar. The fact that the case was taken up in the anti-terrorism court helped expedite the verdict.
This encouraging verdict came a few days ahead of the Chief Justice taking suo motu notice of the recent Karachi rape case of a 12 year old girl, and took notice of the non-arrest of those who raped the five-year-old girl in Lahore on September 13.
“This was the first prominent incident of gang rape in Tharparkar. It was the first time punishment had to be meted out in this area under Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 376 (2). We, the police, are glad that our investigation and hard work have paid off,” says Ghulam Mustafa Kachelo, Station House Officer (SHO), Taluka Chachro. He was on duty on the case.
Akbar feels that this has set a good precedent that the wronged have gotten justice, and this will in the future be a deterrent for others who think of committing such a crime.
“Undoubtedly, very few rape cases have had convictions. This is a welcome move that courts are beginning to take such cases seriously and are recognising the crime and the prevailing conditions. This should be highlighted that now courts have begun convictions in such cases,” says Justice Majida Rizvi, Chairperson Sindh Human Rights Commission.
“We are thankful to all those who echoed the voice of the Thari people and supported the process of getting justice. With this success, we have realised that the media can play a pivotal role in helping vulnerable people,” says Akbar.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 2nd, 2014.
http://tribune.com.pk/story/653741/success-story-how-a-news-story-won-a-gang-rape-victim-justice/

Of three Thari women, revenge and a cell phone

Published: September 12, 2013

“This is a story of revenge. It was revenge which disgraced one woman after another,” reveals a saddened Ali Akbar, Executive Director, AWARE. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: Pictures of a Thari woman lying on the desert sand, her face in obvious agony, surface for anyone who has recently searched the internet with the keywords ‘Tharparkar gang rape’. But the pictures tell an incomplete story, as do the headlines. This story is of not one but three women. Behind the crimes are a cell phone and men using women for revenge.

M*, a mother of two, who was allegedly raped by eight in Pabrayion near the Chacharo taluka in Tharparkar district. The alleged crime becomes uglier as it happened with M’s husband and children looking on, helpless. M and her family were commuting to Umerkot. This is when five men intercepted them, took them to another location, and eight men allegedly raped her for five hours.

Speculation is focused more on whether the rape actually happened or not, but the motive has been ignored. “This is a story of revenge. It was revenge which disgraced one woman after another,” reveals a saddened Ali Akbar, Executive Director, Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE).

People of Tharparkar are shaken up, Akbar said, by this incident, as generally despite poverty, Tharparkar is known to be peaceful with non-existent crime rates.

According to Akbar, the backdrop of this story was set four months back, when a man named Kaloo entered the home of Khano with a bad intention. “The family woke up and the intruder was identified. Footsteps do not go untraced on Thari sand. But the matter was hushed up in the village panchayat,” narrates Akbar.

But villagers kept teasing Khano, alluding that it was the lure of his wife that had brought Kaloo to his house. Thus the first woman in the story is wife of Khano, who suffered humiliation and got sucked into this whirlpool-like situation for no fault of her own.

Enraged inwardly, Khano thought the best way of taking revenge was to dishonour a woman from the intruder’s family, who is the second woman who was shamed and sucked into this game of revenge being played by men. “He raped a close female relative of Kaloo and recorded an objectionable video of the girl on his cell phone with the help of his accomplices. Somehow that video found its way into the village. Her family then started thinking of revenge upon revenge,” says Akbar.

They got that opportunity on September 4 when they allegedly gang raped a helpless woman for the felony M’s husband’s brother, Khano, had committed.

“Thari woman are tough. They can survive starvation and live without even the most of basic of needs but they cannot bear indignity,” says Akbar.

Writer and activist Amar Sindhu, who was part of the protest the victim and her family staged, confirms that she has heard the same sequence of events from concurrent accounts of locals she met. Sindhu, who represents the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and is currently a member of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, Government of Pakistan, believes that M is telling the truth.

“I have met the victim. Not just her condition was terrible but also her husband’s. Testimonies of locals and the victim point in the direction that the allegation is true. I personally believe that M was, indeed, raped,” says Sindhu.

“M offered to show me her bruises and marks when I met her at the protest but that was a not a feasible setting. Also, in a gang rape, there is less resistance as many control a single woman. Therefore, physical marks are always lesser,” said Sindhu.

According to locals, M, her husband and children kept frequenting the police station of Chachro for three days and on the fourth day they staged a protest in front of the Chachro press club.

Pakistan Peoples Party’s minorities representative of the area, Mahesh Malani, said he had no way of confirming or denying the incidents. Malani, when contacted by The Express Tribune,was aware that two women were allegedly raped, but did not know about the night-time intrusion in the third woman’s house, which is where apparently the whole saga started. Locals feel that Malani has not played his role to support the wronged and make sure the perpetrators are punished.

“Suspects of the second case have been arrested. Lab tests are underway. There is no FIR of the first case. The suspects confess to intimidating and rough-handling the victims but are saying they never raped her,” said Malani, adding that he condemns the act in the strongest sense.

“But just taking notice and condemnation is not enough. On our advice, M and her husband have met the session judge,” said Sindhu. She also said that the while the media has played a positive part in drawing attention to the issue, care should be exercised not to vulgarize the issue. “Now the victims have to be helped to follow the legal process to punish the criminals.” *Name has been changed to protect the victim’s identity.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2013.

World Environment Day: Parched in the 21st century

Published: June 5, 2013

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n the harsh desert climate, the little rain that Tharparkar receives in the monsoons, if collected in natural depressions or manmade water reservoirs, lasts hardly a few weeks. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: Lali’s hands are chafed, as this 11-year-old helps her mother pull out water from an underground well in her village by the help of ropes – water that is almost poison. As people round the globe celebrate World Environment Day, Lali’s biggest dream remains clean water, even if she has to continue to walk three hours daily to get it. Where 89% of the water is unfit for human consumption in this district of Sindh, the dream of this daughter of Tharparkar is almost too idealistic.

A lot has happened in the last two weeks. The lower house of parliament has been sworn and new beginnings are underway. Yet, much is the same for the residents of village Samoo Rind in Tharparkar. They still walk with their spines bent. They still spend hours pulling out water from wells. It is two weeks since The Express Tribune published the story of this village in Tharparkar.

With dangerously contaminated underground water which contains high levels of fluoride and is unfit for human consumption, the result is generations of people crippled and disabled, with multiple health issues.

The only alternative to underground water would be rainwater. In the harsh desert climate, the little rain that Tharparkar receives in the monsoons, if collected in natural depressions or manmade water reservoirs, lasts hardly a few weeks.

A Ray of hope

Following Express Tribune’s story, the Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) working in the area was thrilled when a team of the Pakistan Army reached them after reading the story. “On the second day of the story, a team reached. We are hopeful that the report of the said delegation will have far-reaching effects because at a distance of 24 km from Samoo Rind there is a water supply line of the Pak Army,” shared Wali Mohammad, the Communication Officer at AWARE, after the Army visit.

“We have presented the findings of the visit to our commander along with all the facts and figures. The water samples we collected have been given for laboratory testing. Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) has been given the report,” says an Army officer, who was part of the team who visited Samoo Rind, on condition of anonymity.

“For underground water, desalination is the best option and among the available solutions Reverse Osmosis (RO) system is the best method. AWARE mobilised resources from philanthropists and installed a RO plant in 2008. But that is operated on diesel and monthly expenses are Rs50,000 which we cannot afford. The AWARE team got earlier offers for financial support to meet the recurring cost of the RO plant but being local and conscious about repercussions, we decided against temporary solutions. Creating dependency will have its own drawbacks; we don’t want to make our community a parasite,” says Ali Akbar, Executive Director, AWARE.

“Our first recommendation is simple and practical. At a distance of 11 km from the village, there is an electric supply line. If the village gets electricity, the RO plant can become functional,” says the Army officer.

And where is the Sindh Government?

“Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is in a very strong position in Tharparkar now. If they want they can fix this within no time,” says Amar Guriro, President of National Council of Environmental Journalists (NCEJ) and a son of the Tharparkar soil himself. “Jobs and economic security, on the list of priorities, comes after water. This is a basic human right,” adds an impassioned Guriro.

At least some 70 villages in Tharparkar suffer at the hands of unsafe water-borne diseases, and governments come and go, as do promises.

Till the going of this story into press, repeated attempts were made to get a statement from the media department of the Chief Minister House, but no timely response was received.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2013.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/559013/world-environment-day-parched-in-the-21st-century/

Water woes: When heads cannot be held up high

Published: May 19, 2013

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Almost all of the 3,000-plus people in the village walk with their spines bent. PHOTO: AWARE

ISLAMKOT: As he tries to get up from his bed, no more than a threadbare ralli on the floor, Ramesh reaches out for his cane. Once up, he cannot stand straight. Though his full height is some 5 feet 8 inches, he is bent over so much that he seems only half as tall as he really is. He tries to manage a smile which only exposes discoloured and decayed teeth. He is 34 years old.

Nearby his mother, 53-year-old Hurmi, cannot walk at all, and is forced to crawl on the ground. This is not just the story of one house or one family. This is the story of each and every household in village Sammon Rind in tehsil Chachro, Tharparkar, about 480 km from Karachi. Almost all of the 3,000-plus people here walk with their spines bent, unable to stand up straight. The reason for their suffering is the very substance that sustains life itself: water. And in this village, every drop is tainted.

A timeline of Ramesh’s life is typical of almost all residents of this area. The highly contaminated water first affects the teeth, which start becoming deformed around the age of five to seven. Between 12 to 15 years of age, bone deformities start setting in. Coupled with the harsh and hot desert climate and chronic malnutrition, even adolescents start acquiring a shriveled appearance, mimicking old age. By the time they are 25-year-old or above, almost all of them walk with their spines bent. Water, the source of life, has ended up crippling not just their bodies but their dignity and their chance at a normal life. And no one seems to care.

Former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan once said that contaminated water jeopardises both the physical and social health of people, and is therefore “an affront to human dignity”. The reality of this remote part of Pakistan is that no head is held up high, literally.

Almost poison

Seeing the standards the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set for water safe for human consumption, one is forced to wonder how people in villages like Samoon Rind and Mau Akheraj in parched Tharparkar are still alive. But a look at their lives makes one wonder if this can be called life at all.

High fluoride content is mostly the culprit. According to the WHO, fluoride levels above 1.5 mg/l cause Fluorosis resulting in the pitting of tooth enamel and deposits in bones. Above about 10 mg/l causes crippling skeletal Fluorosis. In Tharparkar, fluoride content is found to be up to 31 mg/l.

Many of these victims suffer from diseases of “jaws, bones, teeth, liver, kidneys – contaminated water can affect all organs and these effects can be irreversible,” says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Tayeb Asim.

The arsenic contamination of underground water in Thar has been confirmed by United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) and chronic arsenic poisoning is considered to be a serious health emergency.

The WHO consumption limit for Total Dissolved Salts (TDS) is 1500 mg/l. But more than 50% of the population in Tharparkar is getting water that has TDS of more than 5,000 mg/l. In village Narowari, the water’s TDS content can go as high as 20,000.

A worthless struggle?

“The people of this area have been struggling to draw attention to these problems but all we get is promises. Governments come and go but no one does anything to help us,” says Ali Akbar, Executive Director, Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE), who has been working closely with effected communities.

He mentions the likes of Nisar Khuhro and Sharmila Faruqi giving commitments that never materialised. In January, locals went on a hunger strike in Mithi when they heard that President Asif Ali Zardari was expected to visit, but he never came.

Talking solutions

The preferred option is to find an alternative water source with lower Fluoride levels, as it is difficult and expensive to reduce a high natural level of fluoride in water. If there is no other possible or cost-effective source, de-fluoridation must be attempted to avoid the toxic effects. Digging deeper wells, rainwater harvesting, and installation of de-fluoridation and desalination plants is what should be done urgently.

A parched life in Tharparkar

•  Tharparkar is ranked by the World Food Programme as the most food insecure of Pakistan’s 120 districts.

•  89% of underground water in Thar is not fit for human consumption.

•  On an average, 3 people from each household spend 3-5 hours daily to fetch water for human consumption and watering the animals.

•  Women and children have to pull the rope by hands.

•  High maternal mortality rates in Tharparkar are related to lifting heavy water-carriers for hours and miles. Pregnant women suffer the most

•  The bones of these women are not well- formed, which is why they often cannot sustain child-bearing and die

•  No one wants to marry girls and boys of this village after ages 12-15 as because of brackish water, they acquire the appearance of old age. The result is high incidences of child marriage

•  Drought causes fodder shortage and animals get weaker, which is why livestock keepers migrate to barrage areas

•  High incidences of migration disrupt normalcy of life, which is why dropout rate of school-children is high

•  Due to difficulties of collecting water, people use it sparingly, which results in unhygienic conditions leading to diseases

•  The men suffer more as they do more physical work, hence they feel more thirsty and consume more water which is highly contaminated, and develop debilitating diseases

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2013.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/551420/water-woes-when-heads-cannot-be-held-up-high/

Preventable deaths: Pakistan continues to lose 60,000 babies annually

Published: May 9, 2013

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For Pakistan’s rural population, the major reason of infant mortality is the absence of functional health facilities, says Dr Ramesh Kumar. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

KARACHI: On a hot summer afternoon, a two-year-old sits in his paternal aunt’s lap in a remote village in Tharparkar district. He is too weak and malnourished to brush off the fly that sits on his face. The child would pass for a six-month-old. “His mother and newborn baby sister died three months ago, because the mother had prolonged labour, and with no transport, they died before they could be taken to a proper medical facility,” says the aunt. Some 25 women squatting on the floor start sharing their stories of loss. Every mother has a story to tell – stories of deaths that could have been easily prevented.

Pakistan’s human loss at the hands of neglect of public health is often trivialised when juxtaposed with causes that make headlines. But here’s a headline that should make us think: 60,000 Pakistani babies die every year on the first day of life. Pakistan has the highest first day mortality rate for babies in Asia, making it the most dangerous place in the region to be born, “Save the Children” says. The children’s aid agency launched its 14th annual State of the World’s Mothers report on May 7, revealing that 1-in-77 Pakistani babies die in their first day of life, making up 17 per cent of all under-five deaths in the country.

The report compares 176 countries around the globe, with regards to lives of mothers and their children. Pakistan ranked 139th on the best places to be a mother, based on factors such as mother’s health, education and economic status, as well as critical child indicators such as health and nutrition. It came in ahead of neighbours India and Afghanistan, but trailed behind Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

“The number of newborn deaths in Pakistan is unacceptably high. About 1-in-28 babies in Pakistan do not live past the first month of life, making Pakistan one of 10 countries accounting for nearly two-thirds of the three million newborn deaths that take place globally every year,” said David Skinner, country director for Save the Children in Pakistan. “Pakistan also has the highest number of stillborn babies in the region, at 1-in-23, many of which are preventable.”

“For Pakistan’s 70 per cent rural population, the major reason for the alarming rates of infant mortality is the absence of functional health facilities,” says Dr Ramesh Kumar, health coordinator of the Participatory Village Development Programme (PVDP), which works closely with local communities in Sindh on health and development. “Malnourished mothers are the reason why babies are born with low birth weight and often don’t survive,” added Dr Ramesh.

Low-cost solutions could dramatically reduce newborn mortality. Proper cord care and newborn/paediatric doses of antibiotics can be life-savers. A simple disinfectant like chlorhexidine, if used for cord cleansing, could prevent umbilical cord and belly button infections that can be fatal for newborns.

A simple, low cost corticosteroid injection given to women in preterm labour can save a child by helping mature the baby’s lungs. Yet, its availability is often a luxury for women for who even clean water and anti-bacterial soaps are a rarity.

Traditional birth attendants (TBAs) if trained and given proper support and supplies can save lives of thousands of mothers and babies. This is what PVDP does with its TBA training programme. “We give TBAs little ‘safe delivery kits’ that are life savers with simple yet indispensable things like gloves for the midwife, a plastic sheet to spread under the woman to avoid contact with soil, a sterile blade etc,” says Dr Ramesh.

However the most basic and underlying cause of newborn mortality remains gender inequality which translates into malnutrition of the mother. Physically, financially and socially stronger mothers would mean a better chance at life for babies.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2013.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/546368/preventable-deaths-pakistan-continues-to-lose-60000-babies-annually/

Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha – Hajiani Lanjo, Tharparkar’s first female candidate

Published: April 23, 2013

“Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” says Hajiani Lanjo. PHOTO: AMEER HAMZA

MITHI: In Tharparkar, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or a Hindu. If you happen to be a woman then you’re automatically at the lowest rung of the social ladder, regardless of your caste or creed. For the women of this region, standing for elections is a distant dream, and most are not even allowed to cast votes. Now, one determined woman hopes to change all that. Meet 32-year-old Hajiani Lanjo, a lawyer and social activist who is the first woman in the history of Tharparkar to stand for elections.

It won’t be an easy fight. Contesting for the coveted NA-229 constituency from the platform of the Qaumi Awami Tehreek (QAT), Hajiani will be going up against political heavyweights like former Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim and Pakistan Peoples Party’s Faqir Sher Muhammad Bilalani.

“She may not be a winning candidate, but I salute her courage,” says Dr Ramesh Kumar, health coordinator of the Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), which works closely with local communities on gender issues.

Hajiani, despite the odds, is confident about her chances. “Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” she says.  “But I have faith that if the elections are free and fair, I will win without a doubt. I have worked for my people and they will vote for me – the women, the youth, the civil society.”

This isn’t the first ‘first’ for her either. The daughter of an uneducated farmer, Hajiani was the first person in her family to gain an education. Growing up in a small village some 18KM from Mithi, she recalls how hard it was to convince her father to send her to school.

“I would pester my dad to send me to school, but nobody was even willing to buy me a book,” she says, her eyes moist at the memory. “I kept insisting and my father finally gave in. I started by going to learn the Quran in the mosque and then joined the small school of the mosque.” Most people thought that would quench her thirst for knowledge, but in fact it only whetted her appetite. Despite poverty and the pressures of patriarchy, she found her way to college and then university.

“Learning the Quran is enough for girls, why do they need more education?” she says, recalling the kind of comments people made.

During this time, her tilt towards activism surfaced and she started to work in different NGOs and finally got in touch with members of the Sindhiani Tehreek (Sindhi women’s movement), which was formed in alliance with the QAT. Here she met women from all social stratas, from farmers’ daughters like herself, to educated professionals. The QAT’s leftist and progressive ideology filtered into the kachehri (get-together) sessions, and Hajiano proved herself an apt pupil indeed.

“People are searching for life on Mars, but the child of Tharparkar is still malnourished, our women are still dying during childbirth, we still have no clean drinking water. How long will this continue?” she asks with obvious passion.

Already a Masters in Sociology from University of Sindh, Hajiani has just completed her LLB. “There are very few female lawyers in Tharparkar. Male advocates often cannot relate to a woman’s plea and this is where I step in,” she says.

Luckily, she can also count on her husband for a helping hand. “He is uneducated but very supportive. He understands the cause,” she says.

In her gentle voice, this woman of substance gives a warning to politicians. “My message to the political leaders responsible for the mess that we are in is that you need to get your act together or the people will take matters into their own hands.”

Hajiani is in this fight for the long haul “I trust God, myself and my intentions. In the past, Pakistan has not chosen the correct leaders due to fear or greed. But we can no longer afford to do that,” she says.

Her biggest dream is to change the fate of her people through education, and especially the education of women. “Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha

(If a man is educated, an individual is educated. If a woman is educated, an entire family is educated).”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2013.