11th January 2022
By Rehan Piracha
Only 16 out of 633 women inmates in Punjab prisons have been provided free legal assistance under the Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act, according to a petition in the Lahore High Court seeking a court direction to the provincial government for making available such assistance to all women prisoners.
On January 10, Justice Mirza Viqas Rauf sought replies from the federal and provincial governments on the petition about the government’s failure to ensure free legal aid to women prisoners under the said act.
The court issued notices to the federal secretary for human rights, the Punjab home secretary, the inspector general of Punjab prisons and the Punjab human rights secretary for submission of their replies by the next hearing on January 26, petitioner advocate Nadeem Sarwar told Voicepk.net.
According to Sarwar, the federal human rights ministry had recently established a huge fund for provision of free legal aid and financial assistance to women prisoners under the two-decade old law.
The fund’s board is headed by the federal minister for human rights. The board members include two female parliamentarians from Senate and National Assembly, two female social workers from each province, provincial secretaries for home, and federal secretaries for women division and human rights.
The fund’s administrative board had delegated all powers to provincial administrative committees, chaired by home secretaries, for disposal of cases, Sarwar said.
“That since the creation of the Fund many meetings of the administrative committee have been convened so far and it is surprising to submit that only 16 women out of 633 in Punjab jails had been provided legal assistance,” Sarwar said.
“According to information received from the Punjab prisons department, eight women inmates in Sheikhupura jail, five in Sialkot prison and three in Sargodha district jail had been provided free legal assistance under the Act,” he said.
‘Women Detention Fund not utilised properly’
He said the Women in Distress and Detention Fund was not being utilised properly due to government inaction and non-implementation of the law.
Upon assuming her office, Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari had claimed that the government would ensure provision of free legal aid to women prisoners. However, the federal human rights ministry had not been able to process cases of hundreds of women languishing in jails due to lack of legal representation, Sarwar said.
“A number of women prisoners in different prisons of Punjab Province are behind the bars for the rest of their lives for no other reason than their poor financial position,” he said.
Punjab Legal Aid Agency, and Legal Aid and Justice Authority non-functional
Apart from Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act, the Punjab Legal Aid Act 2018 and federal Legal Aid and Justice Authority Act 2020 has provisions for free legal aid to poor and vulnerable prisoners.
“Unfortunately, Punjab Legal Aid Agency and Legal Aid and Justice Authority to be established under these laws are non-functional due to government inaction,” Nida Aly, Executive Director of Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, told Voicepk.net.
According to figures released in November 2021 by the Punjab prisons department, there were 914 women prisoners, including 644 under trial inmates, in all provincial prisons.