Ever since she was a child, Samreen Hakeem’s ambition had been to become a lawyer. Growing up in Swat district of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, she observed how the women around her needed to be made aware of their basic rights. Yet, with virtually no trained female lawyers – and few educated women generally – accessing legal advice, and then acting on it, was a distant dream in this highly segregated society.
Today, Samreen has realized her dream. A fully trained lawyer, she now provides legal aid in Swat.
Samreen’s journey was made possible through assistance from the United Nations Development Programme’s Strengthening the Rule of Law project. Funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, this project aimed to built trust in legal institutions in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that had been affected by insecurity and fighting between militants and the government. In an area where women had been denied their rights, establishing a cohort of female lawyers who could provide legal assistance to their sisters was a priority.
Accordingly, in 2013–2014, Samreen was awarded a scholarship to complete her LLB degree. On the very day she completed her education in 2015, she was recruited to the legal aid desk by a Swat-based civil society organization, the Holistic Understanding for Justified Research and Action (HUJRA).
“As I became a lawyer I did not possess any book on professional law to study for my pleading and used to borrow books from counterparts,” she says. “UNDP once again played a vital role in my career and helped me to establish my own library and provided the most important books which can be utilized on a daily basis.”
Recognizing that women face significant barriers in practicing law in this conservative region, UNDP took this assistance a step further. “UNDP also selected me for capacity building trainings which were required at the initial stage as I was not confident to institute my case, conduct cross-examinations, manage files or know how to present myself before the honourable court,” Samreen says.
Thanks to this support, Samreen has since delivered more than 100 legal awareness sessions for over 1,000 women, many of whom had never before had the opportunity to receive legal advice. She has also provided pro bono services for women who cannot afford legal care: of the 13 cases she has handled to date, four were pro bono. She has specialized in family law and has dealt with cases related to violence against women, inheritance, and watta satta, a traditional form of marriage which has been associated with forced marriage and domestic violence.
She says, “I have heard about the problems being faced by working lawyers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but never came across any difficulty myself, because I am an open-minded lawyer who knows and respects the norms of my society. This gives me the courage to continue support to the vulnerable community of Swat.” With UNDP support, Samreen Hakeem realized a long-held ambition to provide legal assistance to women in the troubled area of Swat, Pakistan.
In Swat, Pakistan, many women lack access to legal advice. Samreen Hakeem is one of a cohort of young women lawyers practicing in this region.
Samreen Hakeem realized, a female lawyer supported by UNDP, has conducted over 100 legal aid clinics attended by over 1,000 women in Swat, Pakistan.
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