April 24, 2023
By Ahmed Saeed & Asra Haque
In a three-storey building in Walton’s Madina Colony, accessed by a narrow and dark pathway and steep concrete stairs, Salma and 12 other members of her family reside in a two-room portion on the second floor.
She and her aged father are the primary breadwinners of their household. Salma works as a cook in her area, and administers polio drops when the government’s polio eradication programme rolls in. Despite working two jobs, she barely makes enough to pay rent – last month, she had to rely on the support of her neighbours to pay for the roof over her family’s head and electricity so that her five school-going children can do their homework in the light.
Salma had been married once. She and her children – two daughters and three sons – lived with her then-husband in Multan and by her own admission lived an even worse life than now. She was regularly beaten and abused and eventually kicked out when he contracted another marriage. Homeless, she went back to her parents in Lahore.
Her ex-husband however refused to give custody of their children to her, and so began an exhausting and challenging legal battle.
Salma was lucky in that she lived in close proximity to a paralegal center run by Parveen, an affiliate of the AGHS Legal Aid Cell. A neighbour informed her of the center, and Salma reached out, seeking divorce and custody of her five minor children. She was referred to AGHS Legal Aid Cell and even met the late Asma Jahangir who encouraged her never to lose hope.
“When we went to get [my children] from their grandmother’s house, they did not even have any warm clothes. They were skin and bones,”
she recalls the bittersweet moment she saw their faces after such a prolonged absence.
“She was a ghost without her children. Lifeless… she would cry all the time. When she got them back, it was the beginning of a new life for her,” her mother, also named Parveen, recounts. “We stood by her then, and we will continue to stand by her as she carves out their future.”
Salma has since done what she can to move on from her traumatic past. Her two eldest are in fourth-grade while the others are in kindergarten. Their books are worn, their schoolbags frayed. And as they will inevitably grow older and graduate to higher grades, Salma will need the money to afford the books and pay fat fees to ensure they do not drop out.
In 2020, Salma filed a plea through AGHS for maintenance from her ex-husband. She says that in order to prevent taking responsibility for their children’s upbringing, her former spouse remarried and named his new wife the sole heir of his property.
Despite several notices, her ex-husband refuses to appear before court and has so far managed to drag the case in court for the past three years. Salma believes that he has gone underground, as even the police have been unsuccessful in tracing him.
In the meanwhile, she is carrying on any way she can to give her children a shot at a better life.
“One common man should not be that difficult to find,” she laments. Salma’s fight is far from over, and though she is severely exhausted at this point, she understands the importance of taking the stand for one’s rights.
“Women should be like Asma Jahangir and fight for their rights, because there is no other way we can obtain them,” she says.