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More Than Just Lawyers: Women in Law Leading Relief Efforts and Policy Debates during COVID-19

* Nida Usman Chaudhary

This entry is in partnership with Women in Law South Africa (WOZA) and Women in Law Pakistan.

The COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has led to nationwide lockdowns and a period of economic stagnation is expected to follow. As it is, the daily wage workers have been amongst the first to be hit by the economic impact of COVID-19 in Pakistan. With hungry bellies and no money to buy food for their children, many are facing severe hardship and emotional and psychological stress. In addition, many are at risk of exposure to coronavirus as a result of lack of access to water and proper sanitation facilities and an inability to observe social distancing because of living conditions in over-populated ‘muhallas’ and ‘jhugis’. Faced with hunger on one end and risk of exposure on the other, life for daily wage workers is nothing short of a fight for survival in either case, lockdown or no lockdown.

Noting that daily wage workers are likely to be among the most affected by the implications of the lockdown and would struggle to provide food for their families in the absence of economic opportunities, several female lawyers are supporting and contributing to the following relief efforts as documented by women in law initiative Pakistan:

A. Food Supplies Delivery Drives

Barrister Anumtah Gul Shakeel and Advocates Eaman Bandial, Mehek Adil and Zahra Ahmed from Lahore are undertaking and supporting food delivery drives for daily wage workers families across Lahore. Barrister Zahra Sehr Vayani in Karachi has delivered food packages to over 5000 families via ‘rickshaws’ thereby allowing the three-wheeler transporters to earn a living whilst also feeding the families in need. Finally, Advocate Huma Jamil Babur and Law Student Mahnoor Omer from Islamabad are making inclusive efforts to cover food deliveries to the transgender community and Afghan Refugees.

B. Safety Equipment and Disinfectants

In addition to essential food items, people need support to maintain the hygiene required to stay safe. Many do not have access to clean water or washing facilities. Advocate Sheherazade Amin and Saima Amin Khawaja from Lahore are supporting the Gurmani Foundation, which is working in South Punjab, to provide 10,000 masks and sanitizers to the people in those areas.

C. Identifying Vulnerable Groups and Campaigning for their Rights, Needs, and Safety

Lockdown brought many obvious impacts to the fore that the daily wage workers were likely to suffer as a result of closure of business and lack of economic activity however, certain other classes of persons who are also vulnerable and amongst the those that are highly likely to be affected by the on-going pandemic would not have been in our contemplation had it not been for the initiatives led by some of the most dynamic and committed female lawyers and their teams. These initiatives include, but are not limited to:

Mary James Gill is a former Member, Provincial Assembly, Punjab and leading member of the ‘Sweeper Heroes Campaign,’ which works to highlight the plight and rights of sanitation workers. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, sanitation workers are at a serious risk of contracting the virus directly due to lack of safety equipment (such as masks, gloves, suits, etc.) and the nature of their jobs. Her work has helped us understand ‘sanitation workers’ as a class of persons who are amongst the most vulnerable.

Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) is led by Barrister Sarah Belal and her team. JPP represents vulnerable prisoners facing the harshest punishments. Their work has been phenomenal in highlighting ‘prisoners’ as a class of persons highly likely to be affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Their advocacy and legal team is also analysing measures taken by the provincial governments and making recommendations for the preparedness, prevention, and control of COVID-19 in prisons in Pakistan against the backdrop of WHO guidelines and emerging global practices.

Advocate Mehwish Muhib Kakakhel from Peshawar is working to protect and secure the acquittal of prisoners on humanitarian grounds during the ongoing pandemic. She has also filed a writ petition in Peshawar High Court to make free or affordable COVID-19 tests (which is currently Rs 9600 in KP) and bring uniformity in rates of treatment. Her firm is leading the efforts to move towards electronic changes (e-changes), the move towards online justice via e-conferencing and video facilities, online registrations of companies and other areas where electronic means can be adopted to update the legal profession.

*Nida Usman Chaudhary holds LL.B (Hons) and LL.M in Law and Development from University of London. She has been teaching law since 2005 and is an internationally published author in the field of law. She is the founder of Lahore Education and Research Network as well as the 'Women in Law Initiative Pakistan'.


The views expressed in this entry belong solely to the author.

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