Rida Tahir is an advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan and one of the youngest lawyers working towards human rights. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, she details what inspired her to practice law, what human rights initiatives she is currently undertaking, her passion for writing, current challenges to access to legal aid in Pakistan, her career advice to aspiring barristers, and her hopes for the future.
You are a Barrister-at-law and an Advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan with a focus on sexual and gender-based violence. – as you are under the age of 30 – you are currently one of the youngest lawyers working towards human rights in Pakistan. Tell us about what led you to focus on this practice and any recent initiatives you have undertaken.
Pakistan ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women and their access to justice is limited. Additionally, it is the second worst country in the world for gender parity. Women face numerous issues while navigating the criminal justice system (CJS) which results in a low conviction rate in cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
As a young human rights lawyer, I have always felt that it is my duty to provide pro bono representation to the victims and survivors of SGBV. I have also supported special SGBV prosecutors through drafting applications to the gender-based violence courts (GBV Courts) to utilize special protection mechanisms, such as in-camera trial, video-link evidence of the survivor, etc.
At the same time, it I believe it is my obligation to ensure that important precedents are being set in the courts. For example, I recently worked on a case of domestic violence under the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2013 in Sindh province where a magistrate for the first time took cognizance in a case of emotional domestic abuse. Usually, in Pakistan the CJS actors only consider an act of physical violence to be covered under the law as constituting domestic violence (which is not accurate) and they do not consider emotional and mental torture and trauma to constitute domestic violence. This is a problematic issue, and I am happy that I worked on a case that has set a precedent which will benefit victims/survivors of domestic violence in their pursuit for justice.
I also advice the Provincial Police Force on the correct provisions of the law that they should mention in the First Information Report (FIRs) as they lack awareness on pro women human rights laws and recent amendments in the law, particularly the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Act 2021 and the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2021, which significantly redefined the definition of ‘rape’ in the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. Moreover, I occasionally train the synth police and am there visiting faculty member.
Recently, I also started to work as a legal consultant with Ipas Pakistan to interpret Pakistan’s abortion laws though a consultative process. Unfortunately, a woman dies in Pakistan after every 40 minutes due to complications associated with unsafe abortions. Doctors refuse the provision of safe abortion services under the false belief that they are completely illegal in Pakistan, which is not true. Therefore, I am working on drafting an interpretative guidance for healthcare professionals regarding the abortions laws of Pakistan to guide them.
You also conduct work on child domestic labor. Tell us more about the challenges you face in this line of work.
One in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly girls, aged 10 to 14 years, according to a study conducted by the International Labor Organization. The most significant challenge that I face when advocating for the rights of children is that there is no explicit law that prohibits Child Domestic Labour (CDL) in the province of Sindh. Although In Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) and the Province of Punjab, Section 3 of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 and the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act 2019 prohibit the employment of children under the age of 15 years from working in a household in any capacity. Therefore, I am advocating for the enactment of similar law in the Province of Sindh. I am hoping that the enactment of the law will be the first step towards eliminating the menace of CDL.
Another challenge is the fact that despite Pakistan’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, the federal and provincial laws in Pakistan do not state a uniform age of the child. For example, the Factories Act 1934, Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2017, Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2013, Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, etc. all differ in how they describe the age of the child. This creates difficulties in the implementation of the law as the justice stakeholders remain confused regarding the understanding of the law. Therefore, it becomes difficult to work on the implementation of the law. I have been raising awareness with various governmental departments on resolving this issue.
Lastly, various justice stakeholders are not sensitized to the negative effects of the violation of children’s rights. They have normalized child labor. This is because it is so widespread that eliminating it seems like an impossible task to them. Sensitizing the stakeholders and motivating them is where I have to put most of my efforts.
You are widely published and have been active in legal education initiatives. Tell us more about these initiatives and your view of the importance of writing, publishing, and academic activity to practicing lawyers.
When I stated practicing in human rights law, I realized that there was a massive lack of educational material regarding human rights laws in Pakistan. This was partly because very few lawyers practice human rights law in Pakistan. I realized that I had to self-teach and learn from my own experience. I had to extensively research the laws and understand their application in the complex and hard to understand framework of the legal system in Pakistan. Nevertheless, I wanted to play my part and make it easier for others practicing human rights laws in Pakistan, therefore, I started to write on various human rights laws, such as sexual violence, child labour, custodial torture, enforced disappearances, etc. It takes a lot of time and effort to research on human rights laws and then write in an easy-to-read language for the reader. However, I believe my efforts are worth it, even if one person is able to understand their rights, or if it helps a human rights lawyer in preparing for their case for the court.
I wanted to fill this gap of lack of research surrounding human rights laws. So far, I have written for the Oxford Human Right Hub, Durham University Asian Law Journal, London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge Business and Human Rights and various national and international newspapers.
My articles marry my love for writing to my passion for advocating towards bringing reforms in human rights laws and policies. I believe that writing is one of the most suitable ways of bringing awareness to the human rights violations and gaps in the existing laws for the lawmakers along with bringing awareness to the society on the existing laws.
As far as teaching is concerned, I teach the University of London and the University of Hertfordshire external law programmes in Pakistan on the weekends. I also volunteer my time to teach law students on a Pro Bono basis for the LAW GAT exams and on various human rights issues in order to increase awareness regarding the same in the society.
You have also spoken about access to legal aid. What are the current challenges to this in Pakistan?
Access to justice is a human right. Unfortunately, many people in Pakistan do not have access to justice. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2022 report shows that Pakistan is among the lowest-ranked countries in its adherence to rule of law, ranking 129th out of 140 countries worldwide.
The government of Pakistan enacted the Legal Aid and Justice Authority Act 2020 to provide access to justice to the vulnerable and marginalised groups in the society. However, the Act remains largely unimplemented.
It is of course the obligation of the State to provide free legal aid and advice to all defendants’ as well as victims and survivors. But, where the State fails to provide this, I believe that it is also the duty of lawyers, particularly senior lawyers to help and contribute towards this cause. I can understand that many people will believe that it is an unnecessary burden on them. However, I believe that the fate of our country also depends on the individual efforts of the citizens.
For those law students aspiring to a career as a human right lawyer – what would you advise them to do to help improve their chances for success?
It is extremely important for any lawyer to conduct research and educate themselves. if they are unable to find guidance from the senior lawyers, they should not give up. I can understand that it is extremely hard to find your way and to navigate the legal landscape of Pakistan. I found myself in this place more often than one can imagine. However, anything is possible with hard work and determination. I would say, never give up hope. The conviction rate in cases of gender-based violence is extremely low. It will demotivate you sometimes. However, we must have the courage to work hard, to make the law work and to hope for justice. Anything is possible if you have a positive attitude with determination, focus and hard work. Look for support systems in your colleagues and good luck!
What are your hopes for the future progression of your legal practice and the initiatives you champion?
In 2023, I am looking forward towards finalising my interpretive document for health care professionals to advance reproductive rights and healthcare for women. I also aspire to work on the provision of WASH facilities to women in prisons. Moreover, I hope that a law prohibiting child domestic labour in the province of Sindh will soon be enacted. I am also expecting to secure convictions in the cases of SGBV that I am presenting in the courts.
I hope to expand my practise towards providing legal aid to the transgender community in Pakistan. There is an urgent need to advocate for the rights of the marginalised transgender community and I am hoping to contribute towards this cause as well.
Moreover, I am determined towards extending and expanding my practise towards the provision of legal aid to juvenile delinquents and work on the implementation of Juvenile Justice System Act 2018 (JJSA 2018). When I go to the district courts, I often see children in handcuffs and fetters, even though the JJSA 2018 clearly prohibits it. Therefore, there is an urgent need to advocate for the implementation of the JJSA 2018.