Struggling for Change in Pakistan

How IRCT Pakistan member is confronting the country’s problems

Khalida Salimi founded SACH Struggle for Change in 1994. Ten years later she got the UN Recognition Award for her work against torture.

Upon meeting Khalida Salimi, she almost immediately thanked me for being among the ‘young people’ entering into the field of anti-torture work.

“We need more young people to eventually take over for us,” she explains. Salimi views the anti-torture movement as just that – a movement of human rights defenders worldwide, where new, young people must take up the cause and move forward the great strides the elder generation has started.

Salimi herself started working in this field around 20 years ago. She founded the Pakistani centre SACH Struggle for Change in 1994 as part of the growing movement for human rights in her country. She is a trained sociologist, which explains her commitment to a multi-disciplinary approach to the rehabilitation of torture survivors in a field largely dominated by doctors and lawyers. A multi-faceted view, she says, is highly necessary when working in a country beset by large-scale and ongoing poverty, armed conflict while acting as a recipient of a massive population of Afghan refugees from the long history of conflict in the neighbouring country.

Among those various views on how to tackle the problem of torture, Salimi has dedicated herself to continued engagement with all levels of both civil society and government. “A holistic approach,” she explains, “means we need to address and reach the police, the judiciary, the prison systems and then of course the medical professionals and lawyers.”

Reaching the police in particular has been a long—term process, one most recently partially supported by the Non-State Actors (NSA) project from the IRCT, of which SACH is a member. Initially, SACH had to reach out to the police authorities to offer them training on sensitisation of human rights and the law. Now, she reports, the relevant government authorities are reaching out to SACH and requesting further training from the NGO.

“They (police authorities) have moved from denial to acceptance that torture exists and it is a problem.”

The project has assisted Salimi’s organisation in producing manuals for police training to continue the ongoing process of ingraining a culture of human rights. “At the very least, we should ensure a baseline – that the police understand that there is a right to life, a right to dignity.” Now, several police stations in Islamabad have posters with the definition of torture, translated into Urdu, hanging on their walls, thanks to the work of SACH. And in February of this year, the organisation held a training session for nearly 50 prison staff from 8 prisons in the Faisalabad region on the definition of torture, the effects of torture and on improved prison management techniques.

And this is indeed a long and ongoing process, she emphasises, especially in a country that has fundamental challenges in its capacity to address several problems. Take the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), for example. SACH was fundamental in convincing the Pakistani government to sign and ratify the treaty, a process that took many years. Part of that challenge, Salimi says, was convincing the relevant government authorities that Pakistan could indeed comply with the Convention.

The UNCAT, among the fundamental international treaties that prohibits the use of torture, obligates the states that have ratified it to report on certain requirements. Has that country criminalised torture in their domestic laws? Have they neglected to investigate claims of torture? Has the country rendered individuals to a third country where they could have been tortured? The monitoring of the UNCAT obligations requires that countries report on these issues regularly.

The government authorities in Pakistan, she says, attributed their reluctance to sign and ratify the UNCAT because they worried about having the ability to respond to these reporting requirements. But they did it in the end: on 23 June 2010, Pakistan ratified the treaty. One year later to the day, SACH, in coordination with several other civil society organisations, held a workshop with several government ministers to facilitate their reporting to the United Nations on the Convention.

However, SACH’s engagement isn’t limited to the government and preventing torture, but also working with the victims of torture around the country. One aspect of holistic rehabilitation to which they are committed is engagement with torture victims and their families through livelihood training.

“We don’t want to simply give people fish; we need to teach them to fish.”

Many of the survivors they work with have been given a small subsistence allowance through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Through technical and financial cooperation with the IRCT, they have worked with dozens of survivors to improve their skills to create viable small enterprises.

“These are small-scale enterprises, such as vegetable carts in the markets. But we meet with the survivors and analyse their skills. Then we provide a basic adult education, such as understanding the finances of pricing items.”

Overall, it is the potential for the global movement that most excites Salimi. Through the NSA project the IRCT is facilitating capacity development for centres through exchanges and sharing knowledge with other centres around the world.

The torturers can always come up with new ways to torture people, she says, so the networks of torture rehabilitation centres around the world can help the caregivers make sure they stay ahead.

“The perpetrators are powerful, while the care providers may not have the resources, power and time. But by building our networks and becoming connected, the caregivers are united against torture.”


Tessa, a US citizen living in Denmark, is Communications Officer at the IRCT.


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