ISLAMABAD: When interviewed by Reuters, Zardad Khan, from the village of Makol to which 16-year-old Ambreen belonged, said, 'This barbarity has never happened before.' The teenager was killed, her body put in a van and burned.

His words may be true for the village of Makol but not for Pakistan in general. Over recent decades, village after village and, in particular, jirga after jirga, has been implicated in ordering murders and even rapes of women under the pretext of preserving 'honour'. Over a decade ago was the famous case of Mukhtaran Mai, ordered raped and humiliated in Meerwala. More recently, a tribal jirga in Kohistan condemned four women because they were seen clapping and singing apparently in the company of men in a grainy mobile phone video.

They had been attending a relative's wedding.

The numbers are probably greater than most imagine and, as is the case with crimes against women in Pakistan, difficult to tabulate with real accuracy. Pakistani society, at all levels, is adept at cover-ups for the crimes of men, at subterfuge supporting the easy erasure of women. The status of the jirga- or panchayat-ordered killing, an ironic form of 'justice', is a sub-category within the larger compartment of 'honour killings', both populated with the lost lives of women who died to sate the anger and bloodlust of men.

Functioning as instruments of communal justice, jirgas often dole out sentences unfettered by the constraints of the laws of the country. As Ambreen's tragic end reveals, they can carry out their sentences. Outcry, if it follows at all, takes place after the object of their wrath is already dead. In many cases, once outcry and attention have faded, all those indicted for the crime (if they are indicted at all) are often freed to live their lives. In a country where a woman's life has meagre worth, why should men be punished for taking it? Given the regularity with which women are ordered killed, there seems to be implicit agreement on this point.

In their current form, jirgas are composed almost entirely of men and unbound by the limits of the law of the country. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the form of justice doled out by them is misogynistic and brutal. In simple terms, a com-munity's need for expedient dispute resolution is manipulated by its powerful men and then used to order and enforce punishments that serve their own interests. The weakness of the state's own legal system, the cost involved in availing oneself of it and the deadly delays that all it further bolster the reach and mandate of local jirgas. Even for the villagers of Makol, which isn't far from larger towns and cities, the court system, it seems, was too far away, too distant from the lives of Makol's inhabitants.

It does not have to be this way. The work of one woman in the valley of Swat reveals how the actual need for justice and the provision of it at a communal level can be harnessed to protect and empower women, rather than leaving them at the mercy of ruthless and self-interested men. Three years ago, Tabassum Adnan inaugurated a Sister's Council or 'Khwendo Jirga' in the village of Mingora.

According to Adnan, who was herself married at the age of 13 and endured domestic abuse, the existing tribal councils in her community did not permit women to join them. Fed up of this decision, she got together a group of women and began discussing the issues and concerns of the community with them.

The women then pressed the men on the jirga council to take their decisions and consensus into account. According to Adnan, nearly 1,000 women in the area are now involved in the Sister's Council by bringing their problems to it and participating in its processes.

Tabassum Adnan's work has received international acclaim. She has received the International Women of Courage Award and just last month was also awarded the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machele Innovation Award. Her pioneering strategy deserves attention and implementation beyond Swat. A council where women of a community are empowered to intervene and participate in communal decision-making can be a crucial and pressing form of intervention in a situation that has become increasingly untenable.

Tabassum Adnan's jirga does not currently receive any kind of monetary support from the government or from any other source, but its work and powers of enforcement could be enhanced even further if the state invested resources and empowered its leaders. The Sisters Council, with its grass-roots and women-centred agenda, its rootedness in the community, represents a promising answer to a difficult problem.

Not only have honour killings continued in Pakistan, many womens organisations report that their numbers have increased. One reason for this is that while there have been various legislative measures to try and combat the persecution of women and the relegation to the status of objects that can be exchanged or extinguished, there has been no effort towards actually bringing about change at the community level. Honour killings continue despite laws and campaigns against them, because those committing these crimes continue to believe that they are doing the right thing. They will not stop, unless others in their community speak up, and these others have to be women.

Ambreen was killed at the behest of a jirga; she is just one among so many Pakistani women who have lost their lives in similar ways with community collusion and consensus. A change can only occur if women from communities are empowered to create their own alternate jirgas whose decisions are binding on the community as well.

To help these women's jirgas gain credibility within communities, the state should invest in them, recognise their leaders and incentivise participation. Male jirgas have made Pakistan a home for grotesque and brutal crimes, women's jirgas may actually make it a more just and equitable place.

(The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan.Inter Press Service)