Social Activist Valarie Khan in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times
Valarie Khan is a French national who has been living in Pakistan for nearly two decades. A dedicated, determined and hard working development professional with 18 years of experience in the SAARC region (especially Pakistan), in the field of capacity building engineering, child protection, women’s rights and gender issues (with a strong focus on worst forms of gender based violence such as “Honor” crimes and acid violence).
She is the Chairperson of the National Action Coordinator Group to Eradicate Violence against Children and Acid Survivor foundation ASF. Both these organizations have closely interacted with the people of Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa and interior Punjab, in an effort to mitigate violence against women and children in the region.
Valarie Khan in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amjad Hilal, spoke about her work, the problems faced by the women in the region, her work with acid attack survivors and pertaining human rights issues in the region.
The excerpts below give us an insight into the captivating talk that followed:
Can you tell us a little about your background and what has inspired you to work for humanity?
My name is Valarie Khan. I am French national, who has been living in Pakistan for 18 years. I would describe myself as a simple citizen who has had the privilege of growing up in a family where human rights was not seen as a specific topic, but a fundamental value, which was a part of my way of life. As, I grew up in family which was largely influenced by a French philosophers like,Voltaire,Rousseau and Diderot. And, with an exposure to different countries and societies ,civilization, I guess I was inculcated at a very early age as a human being and a citizen to vote and to contribute in improving and creating a better society.
Later, when I joined Catholic Private School at the age of 12, I discovered the sheer happiness in providing help and support to others. I started my social work as a volunteer at the age of 11 and have never stopped.
The Oslo Times International News Network firmly believes in defending human rights, so this is one question we ask all our public figures and guests–“What do human rights mean to you”?
To me it is a set of fundamental and inalienable values, and, it is our only hope of living in a decent and respectable society.
You have been working with acid survivors since 2006, what inspired you to work with them in particular?
I am an educationist and a capacity building engineer. My first experience in the World of human rights and development was education. In 2005, I moved to Lahore with my family for 4 years. One day, I went to a beauty parlor with my son and I met some acid victims, the owner of the beauty parlor was facilitating reconstructive surgery camps for them. The first time you meet an acid survivors you could term it as confronting someone who is physically and disfigured, and my little one next to me asked what happened to them. I was unable to answer him. I went and met the owner and she gave me the overall presentation of the phenomenon.After I showed interest in helping out, I was offered a job.
Though that job was short lived, I had met activists working with acid survivor’s trustees and international representatives who were interested in my approach. So, they asked me if I wanted to help these people, by setting up my own organization with the directors who wanted to make a difference and since then the ‘Acid Survivors Pakistan‘ was established.
ASF provides medical, psycho-social and legal support to the victims. However, what is it that the victims need the most?
It is not up to me to say but usually the victim’s first demand is money and medical help. 99% of acid victims live below the line of poverty. Therefore, they also need transportation, and safety.In nut shell I would say they require Socio-economic support, but everything is just as important as the other.Acid survivors demand and request a holistic approach.However, I suppose the medical support is a key factor, as all future evolution also depend on that.
Does the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill that was passed by the Senate in Pakistan, ensure this?
In my view the passing of this bill was not a historic or extraordinary change,it was only an amendment of Pakistan;s Penal Code and Criminal procedure code. So, now it has become an official crime with 14 years of imprisonment and a 10 million rupees fine on the perpetrators, but there is a need for a specific law. The KPK provincial government has taken the initiative and seems very determined in this case.
Acid violence is a global phenomenon and is present all over the World including UK and USA. Acid violence is not a religion specific and geography specific crime, and it often occurs as gender based violence. I would say that acid attacks occur in all societal frameworks that promote discrimination and have a very patriarchal interpretation of society at a structural, institutional and functional level. So, in a societies where you have that kind of pattern, such violence does exist.
Now coming to the movie, ‘The Saving Face’, which won the first ever Oscar award for Pakistan, in the best short documentary film category, could you tell us about ASF-Pak’s efforts and contribution in the making of the documentary?
This project was a partnership between Asti, Islamic Help , Acid Survivors Trust International ,ASF and Daniel to describe an example of good practice, like I said there are countries who did not hide behind a curtain. Similarly, we partnered with civil society organizations, women parliamentarians and film-makers to raise awareness about not only on the issue but rather to raise awareness about the potential solutions to the problem.
ASF organized the surgical camp depicted in the movie, in collaboration with Islamic Help and ASTI. In short, ASF has ensured that Pakistani progress would be featured in this documentary; it is about showing how Pakistan takes care of its monsters and works to “kill” them.
You are living in such a conservative society how would it be possible for such victims to be inculcated back into the society? Have you had any success in this regard?
Actually, we have been successful, a lot of work is in progress and rehabilitation is a long process so it takes time,our oldest survivors are good examples of positive integration. We even have survivors who have not yet come completely to terms with the attack and yet are taking the lead in advocating for the cause and helping other victims in various ways like how to get legal aid.
Can you tell me about the involvement of men in your fight against acid violence? How do these men come to be involved and how do they add to the movement?
Men have been present in our fight against the acid attacks from day one. My husband is the one who fought to get us registered as an NGO. We have male directors, lawyers, doctors as well as team of male field officers.
It is important to note that Pakistan, like many countries has a male dominated power structure. Engaging men is very important to ensure that we have a constructive realistic strategy and approach to change.
Will there ever be a drastic reduction of human rights abuses around the World, and what changes do you think are necessary for that to happen?
First of all, there is whole procession that needs to be shifted like reviewing the economic system we are in, because I think when we talk about the quality and distribution of resources, we need to do a global,regional ,national, provincial and local level analysis. We also need to be brave enough to acknowledge the challenges, and, not always point fingers at others. We should be able to conduct our own critical analysis and search for proper solutions. We also need to reflect what, democracy is and what the real meaning of those universal fundamental values is. If we look at the UN system it is not democratic enough everyone should have equal representation in all fields and everything. The UN system must be reformed and definitely you also need reforms in Pakistan as well. I believe that any reasonable human being will agree with that the values and morals which prevent us from harming others knows no cultural, religious, geographical boundaries.
There are lots of issues about Human Rights globally. What are your views on Human Rights in Pakistan?
There are tremendous challenges and the human rights situation in Pakistan is certainly not satisfactory. There is a lot of work that needs to been done. But, I am worried and it is not encouraging at all that the work done by the previous government has not taken by the present government and that’s worrisome. I do not understand why? Because it is a suicidal.You cannot see a prosperous Pakistan if we do not work on empowering, developing and providing the rights of its citizens. It seems that the present government has not understood the importance and crucial need to address those. As Pakistanis we have the responsibility to work on providing our children a better country. I want to see Pakistan as a key geo-political entity not only now but even tomorrow. The current government is not taking the issue of human rights seriously and they have to change .It is crucial and critical for the future of the country.
Now I would like to get your view in connection to the recent attack on the Army public school? Why do you think they chose to kill more than 100 children in a single day?
Probably, they knew that it would hurt, because I suppose this is one of the worst form of attack one can conduct on human beings,. you are choosing the most vulnerable and the most easiest group.Frankly speaking it was a great mistake trying to terrorize the people of Pakistan, as you cannot terrorize the people of this nation easily. They are not the people that accept to be controlled by terror and this was the aim, actually it seems that was these tragic incidents actually manages to strengthen the momentum against the terrorists rather than anything else. They are clearly demonstrating that there is no way where they can be considered as the true messenger of Islam for such an act.
In country like Pakistan do you believe that there is media freedom and freedom of expression?
Everything is related compared to several countries “Yes”. However, I do not think that there is any country where media freedom and freedom of expression absolutely exists. But in Pakistan compared to many other developing countries “Yes”. It is relatively present here but again it depends on which topics. There are still lots of topics the media is not allowed to talk about. Freedom of expression is not only being able to speak about something but also being able totalk about something without the fear of being harmed.
Do you have a special message regarding peace, democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and extremism for our readers?
Very humble one I am not expert on all those topics .First of all, promoting human rights and enforcing a democratic process are different things. We need to understand that there is more than one model of democracy, but peace is critical to achieve democracy and it is critical to promote and enforce human rights. All these elements are inter-related and inter connected. If you do not promote human rights how can you achieve peace.
When it comes to freedom of expression we also need to engage a kind of global dialogue ,a peaceful human rights campaign which is based on global dialogue on what is freedom of expression and what it entails need to be made sure an exercise the fact that one set of rights do not kill another set of rights.
As far as Extremism is concerned we need to realize that there are many forms of extremism and we need to acknowledge all those forms. The first three elements we spoke about- peace, democracy and freedom of expression- are the best weapons to fight extremism.