Notes from the Field

From Pakistan: Supporting Human Rights

April 29, 2009

In November 2008, The Asia Foundation, with funding from the Royal Netherlands Embassy, began a new initiative in Pakistan called the Human Rights Fund. The project is designed to engage Pakistani civil society groups, the government, and media agencies – both separately and in partnership with each other – to work to improve protection and promotion of human rights in Pakistan.

The Fund focuses on five areas: freedom from torture, and other rights related to prisoners; freedom of speech and access to information; stemming gender-based violence and discrimination; rights of religious and ethnic minorities; and economic rights. An advisory committee made up of experts from Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, the North West Frontier Province, and the federal capital provide insight and advice regarding human rights in Pakistan for the Fund. Advisors form a committee comprised of members from both civil society and key government institutions. Members sometimes report on pressing issues in their areas. For example, in the North West Frontier Province, the issue of internally displaced persons has been particularly significant in the past year. The diversity of committee members’ knowledge and experience – whether, for example, primarily focused on women’s rights, or minority rights activism, whether in civil society or government – produces meaningful dialogue between the committee members and is a vital resource for the Fund.

Through the Fund, the Foundation makes small grants to civil society organizations or civil society-government partnerships. In December, the Foundation issued a solicitation for proposals and received 282 proposals from throughout Pakistan in response. Clearly, there is a great deal of interest among Pakistani civil society groups in working in human rights – this is particularly so on issues of gender-based violence and discrimination.

After a thorough selection process, the Foundation awarded grants to five organizations for work in Pakistan’s four provinces, and two additional grants are currently being finalized. The organizations selected this time will be working in all issue areas of the Fund, except economic rights. The Foundation also carefully considered organizations that had a variety of strengths, but perhaps little experience working on human rights. Why? Because the Foundation has a long-standing desire to build the capacity of new organizations, including smaller, locally-based ones, to work effectively in human rights. In this way, project work will more likely become a permanent part of civil society. Projects selected range from providing legal aid to prisoners, to building women’s psychological wellness so they can improve their ability to combat gender-based violence, to training journalists at the district level to improve reporting on human rights issues. At the beginning of May, this diverse group of partner organizations will come together for the first time to participate in an orientation and training seminar, and will have an opportunity to share their projects with one another.

Through these small grants, as well as other activities under the Fund, the Foundation is working directly with civil society organizations. The Foundation is also working directly with the Pakistani government, having signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Human Rights, and entering more recently into discussions with Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women.

Pakistani government, civil society organizations, and media agencies have different strengths when working in service of human rights. Accordingly, through the Fund, the Foundation will work with each of these groups separately. Simultaneously, there is much to be gained through improved cooperation and communication. Through this new project, the Foundation is seeking ways to strengthen important linkages between these groups.

Shahid Fiaz is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer and Leylac Naqvi is Program Manager, Development and Coordination in Pakistan. They can be reached at sfiaz@asiafound.org and lnaqvi@asiafound.org.

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