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Pakistan: persons with disabilities demand true inclusion

December 22, 2023
tags:#Persons with disabilities, #Pakistan, #human rights, #accessibility
by:Zulfiqar Kunbhar
"Laws in respective provinces in Pakistan clearly allocate job quotas for PWDs. But they are not implemented in true spirit."

According to the United Nations, around 15 per cent of the world’s population, an estimated 1 billion people, live with disabilities. In Pakistan, government estimates suggest that 27 million people may be living with disabilities, both intellectual and physical.

But despite these significant numbers, persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the country face ongoing challenges in achieving full rights and economic inclusion.

Pakistani federal law, for instance, stipulates that two per cent of people employed by public and private sector establishments must be disabled. In provincial laws, this requirement varies, ranging from three to five per cent.

However, throughout the country, job quotas have been widely unimplemented, with only a small fraction of persons with disabilities employed by government departments or private organisations.

According to a 2022 Pakistan Journal of Neurological Sciences (PJNS) report, the implementation of the 2 per cent fixed job quota for persons with disabilities remains extremely low in the country. Citing a World Bank estimate, the report highlights that 71 per cent of disabled people in Pakistan are unemployed. 

Earlier this year, Pakistani President Dr Arif Alvi, acknowledging the unmet implementation of job quotas, called for the enforcement of disability quotas in public and private sector employment. The aim, he said, is to empower PWDs economically and foster their financial independence.

Moreover, there have been numerous demonstrations in Pakistan by PWDs in recent times, with demonstrators demanding equal rights, specifically emphasising the right to secure jobs under the established quota. At times, such protests were violently suppressed by the local police. 

In December 2014,  in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, the police baton charged a group of 70 visually impaired individuals who were protesting against the government's failure to implement the official job quota for PWDs.

In Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, there were reports of police beating disabled individuals who were protesting outside the Sindh Assembly in August 2015, advocating for government jobs. Karachi witnessed additional protests by PWDs in November 2017 and November 2023.

Similarly, according to media reports, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, PWDs staged protests in the provincial capital Peshawar in August 2016. Demonstrations were also reported in the South Waziristan tribal district in February 2021 and in Hangu earlier this month.

In November 2019, individuals with visual impairments staged a protest in Lahore, conducting a sit-in that disrupted the road for several days.

Pursuing legal avenues 

In pursuit of securing their rights, some individuals in the country have resorted to litigation.

Ahmed Khan, a visually impaired 37-year-old from Sindh, successfully secured his first government job as a result of a legal petition filed by him and a group of 40 visually impaired individuals in 2018. In 2020, the Sindh High Court ruled in their favour, resulting in all 40 individuals being granted government employment opportunities in the province.

Similarly, Aftab Ali Mugheri, a 32-year-old individual who has been blind from birth and hails from Sindh's Qambar Shahdadkot district, initiated logged a case in April 2021 in the Sindh High Court. After a two-year struggle, he finally achieved success in July 2023 when he received an appointment order from a provincial public department.

According to Riaz Hussain Memon, General Secretary of the Pakistan Association of the Blind (Sindh), a representative of visually impaired individuals in Sindh province, it has become a routine practice that, in response to protests by persons with disabilities (PWDs), authorities announce contractual orders as a means to disperse them. But these orders, he said, typically have a short-term duration.

"Whether in Sindh, Punjab or elsewhere in the country, PWDs were recently offered contingency paid employment following protests, which also means they don't receive benefits such as health insurance, paid time off and retirement plans," Memon told FairPlanet. "Laws in respective provinces in Pakistan clearly allocate job quotas for PWDs, but they are not implemented in true spirit."

Memon added, "Recently, federal and provincial governments have introduced legislation about PWDs. In my opinion, recent PWD-related legislation has come into action only because of international pressure, as Pakistan is a signatory to certain international commitments. Making laws is useless unless they are implemented."

According to the President of Pakistan, addressing inequality and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of PWDs aligns with the country's international commitments, including the pursuit of Sustainable Development Goal 10.

In July 2020, Pakistan’s Supreme Court delivered a ruling calling on federal and provincial governments to take steps to realise equal participation of people with disabilities in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Pakistan has ratified.

The Supreme Court has ruled that employment for PWDs is not an act of charity but rather a fundamental right that they are entitled to..

On-the-ground initiatives making a difference

Against the backdrop of increasing protests by PWDs regarding the non-implementation of job quotas, both the government and the development sector have launched programmes aimed at upskilling persons with disabilities.

The Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities (NOWPDP), for instance, a Pakistan-based NGO, fosters the independence and empowerment of PWDs through vocational training in various sectors.

Officially based in Karachi, NOWPDP maintains offices in Islamabad, Hyderabad and Sujawal cities in Pakistan. The NGO collaborates on projects either with the provincial government of Sindh or secures funding through philanthropic contributions from various private companies.

According to their website, NOWPDP has positively impacted over 100,000 lives of PWDs through its various initiatives.

"Since its establishment in 2016, NOWPDP has been offering blue-collar and white-collar training for PWDs in various sectors, including textile and computer courses, besides providing interview preparation training," Rukhsar Sikander,  a programme associate at NOWPDP, told FairPlanet.

Abeer Sohaib, a 32-year-old woman who has been deaf and mute since birth, has successfully completed intermediate education. Three months ago, she began attending a computer operating course facilitated by NOWPDP.

"I did not do any job until now, as I lacked skills for the limited jobs PWDs are offered. Due to a lack of communication skills, deaf individuals are largely ignored for jobs," she told FairPlanet with the help of a sign language interpreter. "Hopefully, after the completion of the computer course, I will be able to get a job in the banking sector." 

Sikander further shared that in order to get the skilled PWDs jobs, NOWPDP reaches out to companies based on job quotas and communicates with them about available skilled labourers. 

"This inter-organisational coordination helps in the provision of jobs to PWDs," she added.

The case of Muhammad Mubariz Arslan serves as an example.

In 2021, at the age of 26, Muhammad Mubariz Arslan, a partially visually impaired man from Karachi in Pakistan’s Sindh district, secured a banking job after completing a three-month call centre course at NOWPDP.

"During COVID restrictions, I completed the NOWPDP online call center course from home," he told FairPlanet. "It's not just me; some of my colleagues also found employment." 

increased support needed

But Sikander highlighted a significant challenge in not meeting job quotas, arguing that the scarcity of skilled PWDs in Pakistan is a consequence of the limited presence of organisations dedicated to skills enhancement for this demographic.

"The ratio of population of persons with disabilities with organisations working for disabled skills enhancement is very low," Sikander shared. "Organisations are not able to fulfill the need as per the demand."

According to her, there are instances where companies actively seek skilled persons with disabilities for job positions, but suitable workers are not readily available. This shortage is attributed to a combination of limited educational opportunities and the presence of few training facilities.

Shan Ahmed Khan, a 43-year-old resident of Karachi who completed MBA and MPhil degrees before experiencing visual impairment two years ago, is currently unemployment. Khan enrolled in the NOWPDP vocational training centre in Karachi three months ago to pursue a call centre course.

He calls for the establishment of more organisations for PWDs if society wants to see them excelling.

Speaking to FairPlanet, he advocated for the establishment of more organisations dedicated to PWDs, stressing that increased societal support in this form is crucial for witnessing this demographic's success and advancement.

What is happening on the governmental front? 

The federal government has recently updated existing laws concerning disabled persons, while provinces have increased the quota in recent years. Notably, provincial governments have appointed some persons with disabilities, mostly on contractual jobs, as part of these initiatives.

According to the Federal Ministry of Human Rights, Pakistan on 16 September, 2020 passed a new federal disability law through a joint session of parliament, raising hopes that discrimination, especially in the workplace, against millions of Pakistanis could be curbed.

The new law covers areas like the political participation of PWDs, equity in education and employment, equality before the law, ease of access and mobility and protection from violent, abusive, intolerant and discriminatory behaviour.

Image by Zulfiqar Kunbhar

Article written by:
Zulfiqar Kunbhar
Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) students are seen learning skills at the Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities (NOWPDP) Center in Karachi on 23 November, 2023.
© Zulfiqar Kunbhar
Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) students are seen learning skills at the Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities (NOWPDP) Center in Karachi on 23 November, 2023.
© Zulfiqar Kunbhar
© Zulfiqar Kunbhar
© Zulfiqar Kunbhar