Tell us about your foray into the field of public policy and gender reforms. How did it all begin for you?
Growing up in Pakistan exposes you to various degrees of inequality and despair that masses face while the arena of public policy stays hostage to political will. Gender inequality hampers our development at an unprecedented level yet is always overshadowed by patriarchal mindsets and insecure masculinity. These factors served as a powerful catalyst for me to launch myself into public policy and work to bridge the widening inequality between genders. It was a matter of should do versus let us do it and I certainly wanted to be on the ground, trying to help, rather than be a keyboard warrior. Pakistan has opportunities where one can initiate a very basic reform that can change millions of lives and I wanted to invest my life bringing those reforms.
You’ve been highly active in your stand for violence against women in Punjab. How much do you think has this practise lessened and in what ways has it increased from the time you actively stood against it until now?
Violence against women is a mindset. It stems from deep rooted practices that we learn growing up while watching women in our households, workplaces and public places being snubbed, abused and held back. The time to challenge this mindset was long ago but I’m glad we at least got started. This practice has lessened a bit but the awareness and reporting has certainly increased significantly. Before we legislated the Punjab Women Protection Act 2016, the option for civil remedies was non-existent for victims or potential victims of violence. That act and subsequently its implementation mechanism, VAWC encouraged women in the most conservative areas to come forward and report abuse against them. VAWC is a one stop centre which provides all justice delivery departments under one roof to women victims of violence, such as police, medicolegal, prosecutors, psychological rehabilitation and shelter. This was the pivotal point for women victims of violence which helped them report the crimes more. It is very important for the new administration to expand VAWC to all districts of Punjab so more women can benefit from it and violence against women becomes increasingly difficult to carry out.
Which country’s model do you idolise and want the same for Pakistan when it comes to women’s protection rights?
Scandinavian countries have impressively progressive laws to curb violence against women. Pakistan is not ripe for simple adaptation of any one country’s laws or practices but requires surgical interventions considering the unique problems that we face. Contrary to the popular belief, women rights or protection is not a western ideology. Islam, the dominant religion in Pakistan, aggressively supports and encourages women rights but sadly, most Muslim countries chose to neglect those principles. I believe an organic solution to our problems is more feasible than adapting a foreign model. The interventions I was able to bring in Punjab were the result of study of domestic women abuse practices and the way justice system fails them.
You are the proud recipient of the prestigious Mother Teresa Award. What did the award signify and are you still committed to working towards the ethos which the award promoted?
It was a humbling experience to be recognised with such a noble award. The award was a testament to the work our team did in Punjab by shattering the patriarchal mindset and tackling women empowerment with on ground projects rather than just speaking about it. Women on Wheels (WoW), the programme we launched, was the first of its kind in Pakistan that trained women on two wheels so they could be independent and take charge of their lives. VAWC Multan tackled more than 1,300 cases of violence against women in Multan in less than a year. The Women Protection Authority was created as a first department in Pakistan which was fully focussed on eradicating violence against women and to empower them. The Mother Teresa Award signified those steps that were unheard of in Pakistan before and it sent a bold message to the world that Pakistan is not going to allow economic, social or physical abuse of its women and will stand by them. I will be committed to this cause regardless of any award but this award certainly encouraged me significantly to stay the course.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m working on expanding the WoW programme, Shehr-e-Khamoshan graveyards all across Pakistan and replicate VAWC as well. Apart from that, also establishment of public toilets especially for women in Pakistan and other countries of South Asia. In the next phase, I’ll be coordinating various public welfare projects that my team is currently in the process of conceptualising.
You are a member of the international council that is tackling violence against women. Tell us a little about that. How impactful is the council in its efforts to diminish these acts of violence?
Vital Voices Solidarity Council is a team of men who are actively engaged in tackling violence against women as well as launching various initiatives to close gender empowerment gap. This council has stalwarts like Marc Pritchard who is the chief brand officer of Proctor & Gamble, mayor of Dallas, Texas, Mike Rawlings, David Schwimmer, actor and director, judge Muhammad al Tarawneh, vice-president, Court of Cassation, Jordan, Alvin Allgood, lead by Alex Prout EVP of Nuveen and few other female empowerment advocates. Together, this council packs a powerful punch to not only come up with initiatives to empower women worldwide but also back these initiatives with on ground support. I’m fortunate to be the only person from South Asia in this council and work with such relentless champions of change.
Earlier this year, we learned that you have launched SAARC wide movement against forced marriages. Please tell us about that. How much is Pakistan a victim of this menace? In what ways does the government needs to control this crime?
I’m working with Diapraxis, a Norwegian Pakistani Diaspora organisation to curb the menace of forced marriages. This issue is still prevalent in this day and age as very few concrete efforts which require multinational partnerships has been launched to tackle it. The society has not been educated that forced marriage is not a marriage but forced slavery. As most victims of forced marriages in Pakistan, India and other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations stem from the United Kingdom and Norway among few other countries, it was important to launch this campaign together at multiple fronts simultaneously. In Pakistan, most victims are not only foreign nationals of Pakistan origin but domestic residents as well. Women and men are emotionally pursued and pressured to marry without their consent and it’s left to time to heal their emotional wounds which only get worse with time. With this movement, we intend to launch campaigns raising awareness and help the government penalise the perpetrators. Also airlines will be brought on board to help victims being transported using their vessels. The government needs to have counters at airports to assist anyone who has potential or already is a victim of forced marriage. Religious seminaries have to be brought on board to deny nikah and other marriage instruments to anyone who’s being forced to wed.
The agony and despair in the eyes of a person being denied justice or whose right to stand equal with other citizens of our country because of his religion, caste or gender is a sight I hold very dear in my heart as that promotes my passion to keep working for them and add my two cents in their fight for social justice
You headed the Strategic Reforms Unit for four years under former Punjab CM Shehbaz Sharif. What were your sole responsibilities while working for the SRU?
SRU was a unique idea executed by Shehbaz Sharif. The intent was to help civil servants align better with on ground situations and initiate reforms that are needed but are neglected. My job was to get that done for the CM. I managed a team of fresh graduates, only five and we were able to do more than 30 projects along with 14 legislations and amendments. This was only possible as the political will by Sharif was backing us and the officers working with us were willing to lend us support that was needed to execute the projects. My responsibility included conceptualising the reforms and also execute them on ground rather than just leave them collecting dust in a file. SRU launched projects towards all aspects of public welfare, from women empowerment to excise and taxation, Shehr-e-Khamoshan graveyards to traffic police reforms, Punjab text book reforms to creation of Pakistan’s first AIG Gender position in Punjab police, legislation of Punjab Women Protection Authority to legislating Punjab Shehr-e-Khamoshan authority. Our projects were not just implemented but we created new laws to strengthen them and institutionalise them as well. We worked in a small office for four years and with a team of just five were able to accomplish all this, Alhamdulillah.
You also won the Vital Voices Solidarity Award two years back. What according to you has been your biggest achievement so far?
Vital Voices Solidarity Award was a big honour for me and my team as that listed me with men that have been exemplary towards women empowerment, such as United States Vice President Joe Biden and United Nations secretary general among others. My biggest achievement in my point of view has been to introduce young fresh graduates into public service arena at the highest levels of provincial government and revitalise their resolve to serve Pakistan despite all odds. Their shaken faith in the system was restored by accomplishing so much in a short span of time and that gave me a great sense of relief. It was no easy task for five young graduates to work with experienced civil servants and fight relentless red tape among other challenges but together we did it with the political support of then CM.
You have been hailed as a champion of women’s rights. What significant effort from your end do you think has earned you that title?
I believe I’ve just started and my accomplishments are not just of my own but of my entire team and government of that time. There are many brave women right activists who have done work on ground way more than I have. I feel honoured to be called as champion of women’s rights but my job is far from done to truly earn that accolade. I believe the Punjab Women Protection Law, WoW and creation of Punjab Women Protection Authority with my team is what makes my friends and foes call me a champion of women’s rights.
What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
A Pakistan for all, regardless of gender, caste, creed or religion, a Pakistan that moves away from shackles that society has bound us with and breaks free into a truly progressive and reformed country. Being Pakistani is an honour that enables me to strive towards what my vision for Pakistan is and there is no other feeling that can beat that when you deliver for your motherland and millions of citizens benefit from your work.
What motivates you to excel no matter what?
Plight of citizens at every nook and corner of our motherland. The agony and despair in the eyes of a person being denied justice or whose right to stand equal with other citizens of our country because of his religion, caste, gender is a sight I hold very dear in my heart as that promotes my passion to keep working for them and add my two cents in their fight for social justice.
We at Daily Times consider you one of our national heroes. Who are some of yours?
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Asma Jahangir and Abdul Sattar Edhi among many others.
Champion of Women’s Rights
Salman Sufi has been instrumental in protecting women from violence. He established the VAWC that encouraged women in the most conservative areas to come forward and report abuse against them. It was a one stop centre which provided all justice delivery departments under one roof to victims of violence. He is currently working on the establishment of public toilets especially for women in Pakistan and other countries of South Asia. He’s working with Diapraxis, a Norwegian Pakistani Diaspora organisation to curb the menace of forced marriages.
Salman Sufi launched the Women on Wheels programme which was the first of its kind in Pakistan that trained women on two wheels so they could be independent and take charge of their lives.
Sufi is the proud recipient of the prestigious and the highly coveted Mother Teresa Award as well as the Vital Voices Solidarity Award. He is the only South Asian on the Vital Voices Solidarity Council.
BEACON OF HOPE
Sufi has helped the passing of Punjab Women Protection Law and the creation of Punjab Women Protection Authority with his team. With the SRU, he launched projects towards all aspects of public welfare, from women empowerment to excise and taxation, Shehr-e-Khamoshan graveyards to traffic police reforms, Punjab textbook reforms to creation of Pakistan’s first AIG Gender position in Punjab police, legislation of Punjab Women Protection Authority to legislating Punjab Shehr-e-Khamoshan authority.
LEADER OF THE PACK
When Sufi was in office, he managed a team of five fresh graduates and did more than 30 projects with them along with 14 legislations and amendments.