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This Pakistan shelter is helping women escape violence and rebuild their lives

©Syed Ali Ashraf/Shutterstock

In Pakistan, nearly one in three married women aged 15-49 reports experiencing physical violence at the hands of their husbands. Panah shelter in Karachi, Pakistan, is offering hope to these women facing domestic abuse, giving not just refuge but rehabilitation.

Living in the shadows

At the age of 14, Maryam was married off to a man 35 years her senior, who already had a wife and family. As the second wife, she became a domestic slave in the household, living in the shadows.

For Maryam, her marital home was fraught with hostility. She had always felt uneasy around her husband’s oldest son, who had made several sexual advances on her. Eventually, her suspicions were confirmed.

One day, the son raped her. Maryam’s husband refused to defend her, and instead beat her, and threw her out of the house. Maryam had nowhere to go.

Pakistani women at Panah shelter, designed to help women in need, many who have faced domestic violence. ©Panah shelter

Many women like Maryam seek shelter from domestic violence at Panah

Leaving her old life behind

A local government referred Maryam to a shelter ‘Panah’ (meaning refuge), where she found sanctuary. Here, her rights as a wife were explained to her, and she was assisted in securing custody over her two children, who were able to join her at the shelter.

After working with lawyers at the shelter, Maryam was able to secure a stipend to live on and a separate home from her husband, who also signed an agreement promising to treat her with respect and dignity. Thanks to Panah shelter, and her own determination and courage, Maryam’s life has changed for the better.

Sadly, Maryam’s situation isn’t rare. In 2016 to 2017, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded almost 3,000 cases of violence against women and girls. It's thought many more cases go unrecorded.

Women at Panah shelter practicing yoga ©Panah shelter

At Panah, there's a focus on wellbeing with yoga classes and art therapy.

Looking beyond life at the shelter

As a member of the Pakistan Forum for Democratic Policing, a network which VSO supports, Panah is aiming to improve women’s access to justice across Pakistan.

Here, women stay for free, with their dependent children, benefiting from medical aid and round-the-clock security. The majority are young wives and will stay for around three months. Most come from rural areas or poor economic backgrounds.

Whilst here, the women can take part in indoor and outdoor games, art therapy and yoga as well as offering sessions with psychiatrists and social workers.  

This is important, as many of the women’s cases are not straightforward. One of Panah’s rehabilitation officers, Mithan Somroo, said, “Sometimes we are shocked when victims tell us how their own brother and father abused them, and how difficult it was to escape from that situation.”

Beyond wellbeing, the shelter is working to reintegrate women into society. The shelter equips women with vocational training in sewing, arts and crafts, cooking, beautician training and literacy courses, so they can become financially independent from their husbands.

Panah also provides legal counselling, a much-needed resource for many of the women, who, Mithan says, don’t have much awareness of the law regarding domestic abuse. The lawyers support the women with legal advice, often helping women to get custody of their children or in securing a divorce from their husbands.

Panah shelter is a shining example of what can be done, not just in Karachi but anywhere in the world, when you’ve got the will.

Baroness Burt

British politician and VSO parliamentary volunteer

Sana’s story

The shelter is helping women like Sana, whose father forced her into a marriage. Her new husband was abusive and violent, to the point that Sana attempted suicide. After seeing how difficult life had become for Sana, her grandfather offered to house her.

A family rift called for Sana to testify in court against her grandfather, which she was unable to do, as he had shown her such kindness. Sana broke down in court, telling the judge about the ongoing abuse from her husband and father. The judge sent her father and husband to jail, and Sana to Panah shelter.

Sana spent almost ten months here, counselled on a regular basis, until she felt mentally and physically strong enough to reclaim her life. Panah supported her in finding a job, when she decided she was ready. She is now financially independent, and hasn’t returned to her family home.

 "They’ve got their self-esteem back"

For shelter manager, Zar Bano, this is in line with her vision for Panah shelter, as a place to empower women: “We wanted to help women escape violence but we also wanted to help these women to live on their own.”

Baroness Burt, a member of the House of Lords, and the Liberal Democrat’s spokesperson for women, volunteered with VSO in Pakistan and was impressed by the work of the shelter on her visit, saying, “Panah shelter is a shining example of what can be done, not just in Karachi but anywhere in the world, when you’ve got the will.

“By the time the women leave the shelter, they’ve got education, and they’ve got their self-esteem back.”

Women participating in a sewing workshop at Panah shelter ©Panah shelter

To date, Panah shelter has given refuge to over 3,000 women - many of whom have been taught skills like sewing to help them become financially independent.

Closing the gap

Since 2002, Panah shelter has been bridging the gap between the social services Pakistan has, and the services it desperately needs, picking up where other institutions in Pakistani society currently fall short.

VSO has been working to close this gap. It is helping to expand and build the capacity of the Pakistan Forum for Democratic Policing (PFDP), of which Panah shelter is a member.

The PFDP is a space for open discussion about perceptions of the police, working to make it easier for women to report crime by increasing the number of women in the police force, and opening women-only police stations.

The PFDP plans to open forums in every province in Pakistan, to build closer relationships between communities and their police. Meanwhile, Panah shelter continues to help young married women, and to date has given refuge to almost 3,000 women. Hopefully, in the future, more women like Sana and Maryam will be able to speak out about domestic violence, without fear of persecution.