Human rights activists have called for drastic reforms in the existing structure of the state-run women's shelters across the country.
The call came after the recent escape of some women earlier this month from a public shelter located in the second largest city of province Sindh, Hyderabad. The escapees later levelled serious charges of harassment and abuse against the management of the refuge centre when caught by police from a nearby village.
"We have been expressing concerns over the state of these refuges for a long time, but the authorities turned a deaf ear to our recommendations,” Nuzhat Shirin, regional coordinator of the Aurat Foundation, an NGO working for rights of women, told IRIN from the southern port city of Karachi.
Shirin asked the government to establish an inquiry committee headed by an existing High Court Judge to investigate the details of the recent escape and abuse allegations.
As of October 2002, there were 13 state-run women's shelters in the country, according to a report of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), while another six run by women's NGOs, provide a secure environment with free food, boarding and lodging facilities to homeless women.
In a conservative society like Pakistan, where 70 to 80 percent of women, according to HRW, face domestic violence in the form of physical, sexual and verbal abuse, such centres were established to give women support in their hour of need. But such essential services need proper support, activists maintain.
"Existing state-run women's refuge centres are like 'dumping places' and sub-prisons. Once a woman enters, she can't leave without obtaining a court order,” Khalida Saleemi, director of Struggle for Change (SACH), an NGO working for the rehabilitation of violence victims, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
“Counselling is one of the most critical needs of women in refuge centres as all of them live under stress, but, none of these abodes have in-house councillors,” Saleemi said, adding that the government should arrange proper medical and psychiatric services for physically injured and emotionally disturbed women.
The protection and safety of women in refuges has always been a critical issue. Religious conservatives have often raised concerns over the security situation in these centres and have accused those running such facilities several times of exploiting female residents. Allegations that stem from cultural norms that define a woman's place as being in a male-dominated household.
Additionally, rights activists observe that the rules for visitors are also often violated. In some cases, people are allowed to go inside the shelters without formal permission from the designated authority. While on the other hand, human rights workers are denied access.
Shirin said that women have no access to legal aid services in these centres. "Even the organisations interested in providing free legal aid to women in shelter homes have always been discouraged by the authorities,” she added. "When government speaks of provision of equal rights for women then it must ensure a transparent system in such institutions as well,” Shirin said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Saeeda Malik, provincial minister for Women’s Development, told IRIN from Karachi that the government had appointed a committee to investigate the matter but, “the activists should not go for politicising the issue, it won’t help in sorting out the actual problem.”
"There is always a room for improvement and the government is committed to intervene for the better,” Malik added.