LAHORE -- The Punjab government has established special courts specifically to handle cases of violence against women and children, including sexual assault.
The first of their kind in Pakistan, the courts were set up in October as part of an amendment to the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2017 approved by Chief Minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif.
The special courts are to be created in each of Punjab's 36 districts and will be presided over by women judges and prosecutors who are specifically trained in women's and children's issues, reported Dunya TV.
The goal is to speed up proceedings, with the aim of concluding cases within two weeks.
"The need to establish special courts for women's cases arose because of lengthy procedures and the slow pace of proceedings in civil and family courts," Arzoo Malik, an attorney at the Lahore High Court, told Pakistan Forward.
"The cases of violence against women need to be decided quickly so as to provide justice to the [female victims]," she said. "That's why special courts for them were established."
"Police and secretaries of the prosecution and home department agreed to voluntarily facilitate functions of the authority and undertake steps that could eliminate crime against women," she said. "They further assured that they would take measures to remove any red-tape hampering quick justice to women."
The courts are also expected to encourage women to come forward with cases and to seek justice.
"Women often put up with sexual harassment [at work] because they fear compromising themselves," Dr. Nasir Saeed, a psychiatrist at the Services Hospital in Lahore, told Pakistan Forward.
"The victim fears for her own reputation and that of her family," he said. "Often, pressing circumstances force her to continue working in such an environment."
"What's more, even the family may not offer the victim support -- she may be told that this was bound to happen and that she ought to have stayed at home," he said.
In one such example, Mahem, a receptionist at an accountancy firm in Lahore, told Pakistan Forward that one of her male co-workers "brushed against me on and off".
Mahem said she has been unable to protest because of the management's trust in its senior employees. "Daily humiliation and frustration keep me constantly on the lookout for another job, but I've had little luck so far," she said.
"In Pakistan, it comes as no surprise that sexual harassment is such a hush-hush affair," she said. "It is encouraging to know that Punjab government has taken the initiative to establish such [courts]. Women are reluctant to open up, but a same gender environment could help and encourage raising voices against harassment."
"The formation of special courts can reduce the trauma, pain and suffering of the victim by awarding an accused the maximum punishment [as soon as possible]," Mahem said.
Speedy trials encourage women to come forward
"Instructions have been given to all the public prosecutors to the effect that in all cases of rape, [human] trafficking, torture, abuse and exploitation of children, serious and speedy action should be taken whenever they come up in any court within their respective jurisdiction," Fauzia Viqar, chairperson and chief executive at the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, told Pakistan Forward.
Those instructions "will encourage more women to come forward and pursue criminal complaints with full confidence and complete privacy", she said.
Such efforts have already encouraged some women to come forward.
Jamila, a junior nurse at a government hospital in Lahore, recently filed a complaint at one of the newly established special courts. She alleged that she was transferred to a different location in Islamabad in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment to management.
She accused the shift supervisor of colluding with doctors to assign to the night shift young women who were then forced to provide sexual favours.
"The court encouraged me to launch a complaint and get justice," Jamila told Pakistan Forward, adding that an increase in the number of sexual harassment cases has necessitated the formation of special courts to handle them.
"Let us hope that these courts do not succumb to the same illnesses that other special courts usually fall victim to," she said.
The courts, and speedy trials, will allow victims to "have sigh of relief and start rehabilitating" because drawn out trials would require victims to repeatedly appear in court to answer humiliating questions from the defence counsel, Jamila said.