April 23, 2023
By Ahmed Saeed & Asra Haque
Along a street adjacent to the boundary wall of a railway track cutting right across the Walton area’s Madina Colony stands Parveen’s home, its pink gate perpetually open from in the morning till 4 in the evening, for anyone in need.
Usually she and her family reside on the ground floor section, while Parveen runs a paralegal center out of the first floor portion.
The center, established in 2006 and formally incorporated into AGHS Legal Aid Cell’s Paralegal Programme in 2017, has been facilitating women (and even a few men) in accessing justice. Parveen’s own journey as a paralegal began in 1989 when a student of hers ran away from her family.
“Her family wanted her to stop studying and help her brother make yarn. She went to AGHS Legal Aid Cell, and they sent her to the shelter. Her family came to me and requested that I go with them because she refused to meet them without me there,” she recalled of her first encounter with the organization. “From then on, I would refer cases. I never realized that I was already doing part of the work a paralegal does.”
In 2000, she came to know of free paralegal training sessions conducted by AGHS lawyers and coordinators and signed up immediately. There she was given lessons in Constitutional rights and human rights legislation, and even given tours of police stations, jails, and courts to understand how the legal system works and how to navigate spaces where the legal system is enforced.
Parveen has since worked as a certified paralegal and more recently as the In-charge of her paralegal center in Madina Colony. Hers is one of 16 centers situated across Lahore and Kasur that are the bridge between women survivors of violence and free legal support provided by AGHS Legal Aid Cell.
Launched in 1980 by the late Asma Jahangir, AGHS Legal Aid Cell’s Paralegal Programme has been operating for the past 40 years or so to increase awareness of constitutional rights and laws pertaining to marriage, divorce and inheritance among women in Pakistan, as well connect destitute and vulnerable women to experienced lawyers free of cost.
In over 30 years of aiding women in need, Parveen has seen the fruits of her labour and others like her pay off.
“Things are a lot better off now than they were when I first started off,” she says. “Though there are times that we get certain cases that it makes me feel like everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve over the decades has been erased.”
“But giving up is not an option.”
Parveen believes that strong women are built with the support of their families and loved ones. In her case, her husband Ajmal Shah stood by her when she made the choice to become a paralegal and establish a center in the upper floor of their house.
“We think that people will say things, and that’s what deters people from doing the right thing. I never once doubted my wife’s work,” he says. “Some of the women that come to us are in need of so much help. All they need is someone to listen to them. How can we turn them away?”