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From grassroots to government: Taking the fight for gender equality to the top

VSO

Dr Madhuri Singh has been working to end gender-based violence for over 30 years. In 2017, she used her expertise as an eminent VSO volunteer in Pakistan to take the fight against gender-based violence to the highest level.

Dr Madhuri Singh conducting a meeting Madhuri Singh

In 1992, in her home country of Nepal, Dr Madhuri Singh founded an organisation called SAATHI. It was the first of its kind in the country – providing shelter and support to the victims of domestic violence.

Madhuri is an expert in gender-based violence, and has dedicated her career to finding the causes and solutions to the daily horror than many women face all over the world.

“The work became a passion," says Madhuri, "Seeing so many women slowly coming out of the situation that they were in, because they then understood that violence was not their fate, and not to tolerate violence was their right.”

Through SAATHI and other organisations, Madhuri has trained over 5,000 individuals across the country on the issue of violence against women. Then in 2017, Madhuri was invited to bring her passion and expertise to Pakistan as a VSO eminent volunteer.

A VSO eminent volunteer

"I was called as the eminent volunteer by VSO to participate in this policing programme in Islamabad. So that is how I got involved, through sharing my experience of our work in Nepal.” 

Madhuri with Human Rights Commission-Help Line Madhuri Singh

Madhuri spent her time in Pakistan attending high level discussions with government officials and NGOs, emphasising the vital importance of supporting and defending women at an institutional level.

As an eminent volunteer, Madhuri is in the unique position of being able to use her expertise to influence policies that could affect women across the country.

“All VSO volunteers have their own strengths. As a volunteer you go and you work in a community and the community directly benefits," she says.

“Eminent volunteers are working with government officials, politicians and decision-makers. So it has a different kind of impact.”

Working with the police

In Pakistan, almost one in three married women experiences violence at the hands of their husbands. But only half ever tell anyone. And even fewer go to the police – just 1%.

Much of Madhuri’s work is helping train the police to create safe spaces for women to report abuse. This means not only changing the male-dominated culture of policing but also training and empowering women to join the force themselves. 

This work is crucial, as one of the biggest problems facing women in Pakistan is the fear of not being taken seriously by the police when they do seek help – which puts them in even greater danger:

“I went to Pakistan for the first time in the 1990s and that was when I first heard the term ‘honour killing’. I was shocked," remembers Madhuri, "Because if a woman goes to report to the police, what would be the repercussion on her own life? Would that be bringing a bad name to the family, would she be re-victimised?”

Women in a policing station in Pakistan VSO

The Government of Pakistan has committed to end violence against its citizens, signing international agreements on gender-based violence and establishing a ministry to protect women.

With VSO’s support, we are being the voice of the voiceless.

Dr Madhuri Singh

Honour killings are the practice of punishing a woman who is deemed to have brought shame on her family – often by killing her.

If women are empowered to speak out against violence, but are simply handed back to their abusers by the police when they do, then that empowerment could put them at risk of retribution.

But by creating a policing culture in which women are believed and protected, women are able to come forward without fear and hold their abusers to account. Volunteers like Madhuri are working at the level where those support systems are put in place.

Looking forward

Things are slowly changing. The Pakistani government has officially pledged to end gender-based violence, and VSO volunteers at all levels are keeping the pressure on for achieving that goal.

With Madam Chair National Women's  Commission and VSO Pak Representative Madhuri Singh

“A lot of effort is being made in Pakistan and VSO has played a major role in combating violence against women – working with organisations to train the police, to train other law enforcement agencies and to raise awareness.

“I am very optimistic that one day we will come to a stage where women will enjoy their rights.”

Eminent volunteers play a key role in VSO’s work. They’re a vital link in the chain that places volunteers at every level – from grassroots to government – to make sure that the poor and marginalised have their voices heard.

What is an eminent volunteer?

An eminent volunteer is someone who is an expert in their field who uses their knowledge and networks to combat poverty and marginalisation.

They will often work at high levels, such as in government, helping to create and advise on policy and legislation that enables poor and marginalised people to access their rights.

They may act as an adviser, present evidence and research or act as advocates. It is a crucial role, and it means that when people stand up and use their voices to claim their rights, someone is listening.