Durdana was being threatened by her parents that she would be killed if she meet her new husband. It was her second marriage of her own choice. They had imprisoned her in their home but she still had her phone with her and had learned about the helpline for women that had been set up. She noted the number and when she was alone in house she called.
Nayab Hassan was on the other end. She had been trained how to answer the call. “Be gentle. Listen. Let them speak. Let them tell you what they want. Sometimes they are very emotional,” she said at the helpline center - located in the sprawling provincial parliament buildings in Pakistan’s deeply conservative Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, where tribal councils still hand over young girls to settle disputes.
Not far from the border with neighboring Afghanistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa became the first province in Pakistan to set up a hotline for women that feeds directly into the provincial legislature.
It’s still a small operation. It began March 1 and so far there are only two operators, Hassan and Mehran Akbar. They take the information from the women and Shandana Naeem, a lawyer, follows up with advice and a network of free legal services.
They keep a careful log of all their calls, which average one a day so far, and while most have emanated from the provincial capital of Peshawar, several have come from more remote regions.
Durdana’s call was from Swat, a picturesque mountain region of clear blue lakes that ramble through valleys surrounded by imposing peaks. The area’s beauty is a stark contrast to its dark and violent history.
It was in Swat where Pakistan’s Taliban briefly ruled, beheading police in the town square and where Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for advocating girls’ education and criticizing the violent religious radicals as being frightened of female education.
The log book is carefully kept. It records names, dates, phone numbers and then their stories. Some are horrifying. One woman, Aneesa, called to say that two years earlier her husband had thrown acid at her, stole her money and jewelry and fled to Saudi Arabia. She had moved in with her parents and now her eyesight was deteriorating from the acid attack; she needed medical assistance but had no money to pay for it.
Naeem said they helped her work through the red tape of getting a health card - the first step to health care. But Aneesa’s call also made them realize the need to engage local health clinics and develop a network that would be willing to offer free health care, similar to their legal service network.
Naeem said most of the calls have been over property disputes, where women were being denied their inheritance.
The helpline was developed by Meraj Humayun Khan, a 70-year-old parliamentarian who has taken on her male colleagues to organize a women’s caucus in the provincial parliament.