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Politician fights for fairness for all Pakistanis

27 June 2014

CHRISTIAN AID/Joseph cabon

Ascent: Shunila Ruth outside the Houses of Parliament, during her visit to the UK this month

Ascent: Shunila Ruth outside the Houses of Parliament, during her visit to the UK this month

WHEN Farzana Parveen, a 25-year-old pregnant woman, was stoned to death in front of a courthouse in Lahore last month, the world reacted in horror. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was only streets away at the time, described it as "a revolting lynching" (News, 6 June).

For Shunila Ruth, a local politician in Lahore, such crimes are commonplace. "These are the stories, the happenings that we hear and see, day-in, day-out," she said this month. "It's almost 5000 women who are killed per year from domestic violence. Many are maimed and disabled, and the majority of victims have no legal recourse."

Ms Ruth has worked all of her adult life to champion the rights of women in Pakistan: "It is my pain, my passion, and my mission." Speaking at Christian Aid's offices in London, she described her journey from growing up in the Church (her father was a Moderator of the Church of Pakistan) to becoming a member of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab.

As co-ordinator for the Women's Synodical Church of Pakistan in the 1990s, leading work to support women and to enhance their leadership, she set up a programme for women who were victims of violence and had been abandoned by their families, providing them with training to enable them to become economically independent.

"I felt that the Church needs to stand by these women, because in my culture the State doesn't look after them," she says.

Ms Ruth identifies with these women, having experienced what she describes as a "very rough marriage life", before being abandoned with two children. Her work is not without risk. In 2012, four masked men attacked her near the women's centre she was running. She was hospitalised.

In 2009, she joined Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and, after adding 25,000 members to the party's books, was asked to stand for election.

There are 66 seats reserved for women in Punjab Assembly, and eight for non-Muslims, out of a total of 371. Ms Ruth believes that the constitution needs to be reformed to address discrimination.

There is also continuing violence. She travelled to All Saints', Peshawar, on the day a bomb killed 80 worshippers (News, 13 September). "The people are even more strong in their faith," she reports. "The church is packed every Sunday."

Some progress is being made. This week, it was announced that the Chief Justice of Pakistan had ordered the formation of a National Council for Minority Rights.

Ms Ruth will continue to fight for the rights of minorities and of women. "If it is a concentrated struggle, there is hope for women in Pakistan."

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