Nida Usman Chaudhary, Founder, Lahore Education and Research Network (LEARN) and Women in Law Initiative Pakistan talks to Karvan about how she established LEARN and the challenges human rights advocates have to face. She is also Chairperson, Gender Equality and Diversity Committee LHCBA 2018-19 and Country Ambassador to Pakistan – Alliance for Equality in Dispute Resolution.

1. What inspired you to establish Lahore Education and Research Network (LEARN)?
LEARN was born out of the realization that our legal education was not preparing us for legal practice. All three years of my law degree I had these questions in my mind which no one could answer. Our profession is largely based on the ‘apprenticeship model’ rather than a ‘training-based model’ and that has its limitations particularly when you are a female. Your opportunities to learn are more restricted. I quickly realized that the only way to turn this around was to work on introducing the concept of Continuing Professional Development in law to the legal profession in Pakistan. This will create a paradigm shift from ‘apprenticeship’ to a ‘training-based model’. We believe that the lack of access to apprenticeship opportunities should never be the reason again for anyone for not pursuing legal practice.

2. What is the mission of LEARN and how can one become a part of it?
LEARN prides itself on the flexibility it offers to its teammates and it was designed as a ‘network’ keeping the limitations of formal work structures in mind. We wanted to break from the regular 9-5 routine and offer something to all those who support and contribute to our projects that they could feature in their lives easily. LEARN is a work of passion and it is propelled by the same voluntary energy that created it in the first place. This allows us to be dynamic and respond to changing circumstances with much more ease than traditional work structures. You have to understand that we are all about challenging the status quo and doing things in ways that are new or perhaps even radical.

Our mission is to bridge the gap between legal education and practice and to work for the advancement of the legal profession, on the whole, to make it more inclusive for all marginalized classes including women, minorities and the differently-abled. We also serve as a platform to develop linkages with other collectives and institutions to work on human rights, gender, child and climate justice. We work on a project to project basis with people/trainers/resources that are relevant to a given project and in doing so pride ourselves in being able to connect and synergize the resources where they may be needed the most. Those interested to be considered as a resource/trainer should email their CV and a cover letter sharing us about their interests or expertise at [email protected] as well as their availability. They will be contacted as soon as a project matching their skills and interests comes about. Alternatively, people reach out to us for collaborations and their own project ideas which we can assist and support if they fit within our focus areas and expertise.

3. Tell us about Women in Law Initiative Pakistan and what role is it playing?
Women in Law Initiative Pakistan is perhaps one of the most important initiatives that we took under LEARN but one which has now developed a life of its own. It is now a semi-autonomous project that aims to connect female lawyers and highlight the important work they do. It also serves as a platform for the collective voice of female lawyers through which their collective concerns can be raised. The initiative was launched in 2016 and since then it has now three chapters – Lahore, Islamabad and KPK as well as liaison and linkages with sister associations in Karachi such as the Women Lawyers Association. In addition to the connectivity of female lawyers to each other as well as to the resources and opportunities, the platform serves as a means to support women and stand against gender-based violence such as with survivors like Khadija Siddiqui in her quest for justice. It also proposes legal reforms with a view to creating a more enabling environment for female labor force participation such as for instance the work on the maternity benefits amendments or child marriage restraint amendments. The initiative is also working on offering training opportunities for women in law and to raise their concerns for collective issues such as calling for more transparency in judicial nominations and appointments process.

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4. You are a believer in creating a tolerant peaceful society. How are you moving towards achieving this goal?
There can be no peace and tolerance where there is ignorance. You use education to eliminate ignorance. In all our programs, sessions and workshops we try to incorporate a rights-based approach with a focus on inclusion and diversity. You will find in all our public stances, workshops and training sessions a desire to be intersectional and equally respectful to all, even where we are dealing with issues focused on one class of persons. Our focus is on setting up engaging dialogues that look at structural, social, political and other systemic inequalities and their solutions rather than being personal or vindictive. This allows us to walk our talk and show how difficult questions can be addressed in a tolerant and peaceful way.

5. Being a female you have achieved milestones in life and your determination will earn you many more. What challenges did you face while pursuing your professional goals?
Working on rights is never an easy ride and there are many challenges along the way because human rights defenders are increasingly and systematically being restricted in the sphere of their work. Perhaps the biggest challenge that I have faced has been in relation to the overkill of regulation in the development sector that effectively works to weed out smaller collectives and initiatives such as ours as a result of which it becomes very difficult for us to financially support our goals and objectives.

6. What social and attitude change(s) do you think Pakistani society needs to become cultured and disciplined?
If only we can achieve accountability in the real sense of the term and have our laws implemented in a way that people are sure that a sanction would follow if they break the law can discipline be achieved. Without enforcement of the law or at least the certainty of it, it is very difficult to ensure discipline. As far as being more cultured is concerned, we definitely could do with instilling the habit of reading and nurturing the culture of reading more books and spending less time on social media or even electronic media for that matter.

7. Your message for the youth of Pakistan?
We are clearly living in times where the youth has the message for us and it is time we pay heed to it. I am most impressed and encouraged by the force of the youth and their relentless spirit and desire to create a better world, a better society for themselves and others around. I just want to wish them well and encourage them to continue their noble work, to continue to innovate, create and to keep pushing for space in policy by raising their voices for climate justice, for education, for tolerance, and for rights; and yes, I do think we owe them an apology for bringing things to a tipping point. May the force be with them. More power to them!

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