Girls between the ages of 18 and 23 have been the most vulnerable. Photo: Express Tribune
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an incident of rape occurs every two hours and an innocent victim is gang-raped every four to eight days in Pakistan. Although government officials and human rights activists argue that this is an issue faced by the global community at large, the situation in Pakistan has deteriorated over the years instead of taking a turn for the better. An annual report compiled by the Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani women’s rights organization, indicates that violence against women in the country has generally been on the rise since 2008. It is important in this regard to determine which factors have contributed to this trend, what problems the victims face in the status quo, and whether state institutions have played their parts effectively in the past to ensure proper implementation of the current legislation against perpetrators in an effort to set a deterrent against this heinous crime.
Rape is not an issue that has surfaced in recent years in Pakistan. At the time of partition of the Indian subcontinent, there were frequent occurrences involving both Muslims and Hindus. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 women were sexually assaulted by the Pakistan armed forces and supporting military groups.
The lives of women in the country were then drastically altered by the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinance in 1979 which dealt with offences such as adultery, theft, rape, and bearing false witness and made them punishable under Shari’a (Islamic Law). The ordinance blurred the distinction between Zina (adultery) and Zina-bil-jabr (rape) and made women vulnerable to the misogynistic tendencies of men in a patriarchal society. To prove that the act of rape had been committed against her, the woman had to admit that sexual intercourse took place. Along with the stigmatization that usually accompanied this confession, it was used in some cases as an admission of guilt on the woman’s part. If the accused was later acquitted due to a lack of evidence, the complainant faced charges of either adultery or fornication. According to a report by the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW), an estimated 80% of women in jail in 2003 were there because “they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery”.
There have also been cases where illegitimate pregnancy after rape was used against women to prove adultery on their part while the rapists were acquitted. Not only was this ordinance a direct violation of Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan which states “There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex”, it also resulted in many cases of rape going unreported due to the victims’ fear of being convicted as criminals.
The Women’s Protection Bill 2006 sought to amend the Hudood Ordinance in an effort to appease the human rights organizations and activists demanding a complete repeal of the law. The bill made rape punishable under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which is based on civil law and automatically categorized sexual intercourse with a woman below sixteen years of age, with or without her consent, as rape. It is imperative to note that the gravity of the current situation in Pakistan calls for more drastic action. According to the Islamabad-based NGO Sahil, there were 3,861 child sexual abuse cases reported in Pakistan in 2012 – a 17 percent increase on the previous year. No separate legislation currently exists for cases of child sexual abuse despite the more severe moral and ethical obligations attached.
“The issue of child abuse currently falls under the section dealing with rape in general. There is an immediate need for stricter punitive legislation in this regard to set an adequate deterrent,” said Sidra Humayun, Program Coordinator of War Against Rape (WAR), an organization that works on the issue of sexual violence and provides medical, legal, and psychological help to survivors. WAR has documented a number of cases of rape, some involving very young children, and has also detailed the reluctance of victims to speak out, and the difficulties they face in obtaining justice when they do.
One of the main problems in tackling child sexual abuse in Pakistan is getting acknowledgment of the issue’s existence; the matter being one whose reality people refuse to accept. For many people in Pakistan, it is a taboo subject which they are not willing to discuss. Faqiha Rafi, a psychologist who runs a private clinic in Lahore, blames social disintegration as the main culprit behind cases of child molestation. “When there exists frustration among individuals in society due to inflation, poverty, terrorism, or any other factors, and there is little chance of entertainment, people will resort to illegal and immoral methods to gain pleasure,” Rafi said.
In most cases, an acquaintance or relative of the child is responsible for the act. Sahil found that in 47 percent of the cases reported, the crime was carried out by an “acquaintance” or a person “known to the victim and their family”. This also often results in the child being murdered after rape for fear of being recognized.
To assess the current situation and devise an effective counter-strategy to prevent incidences of rape taking place, it is crucial to highlight the underlying factors that have contributed to the increase in reported rape cases in Pakistan in the past few years. Omer Aftab, CEO at White Ribbon Pakistan, an organization that aims to end gender discrimination against women by creating awareness amongst men, sheds light on the issue. “There are three main causes of rape in Pakistan: Lack of education, sexual frustration, and poor implementation of the law,” Aftab said. “In the absence of proper implementation of the law and appropriate deterrence for culprits, rape victims cannot obtain justice.”
Some women subjected to sexual violence commit suicide out of shame and the belief they have brought disgrace to their family’s name through their actions. In some cases, the victims are murdered by the families themselves to rid the family of the social stigma and ostracization that is usually associated with such occurrences. A report from the HRCP estimated that in 2009, 46% of unlawful female killings in Pakistan were “honour killings”. In such cases, the family and rapist often get away with their wrongdoings while the victim is punished for a crime they never committed. As a result, many cases of rape remain unreported due to the victims’ despondence over obtaining justice through the flawed legal system and social pressures while their offenders walk away without accountability. “In most cases, women who have been raped are killed while their rapists get away with impunity. If a man wants to exact revenge on a woman, he simply rapes her with the satisfaction that she is the only one who will have to bear the consequences,” Aftab added.
Along with the social stigma and ostracization at the hands of society, survivors often have to deal with a multitude of problems in their quest for justice. The Women’s Protection Bill requires DNA tests of all rape victims and suspects in a country that boasts only a handful of DNA laboratories for a population of over 180 million. Furthermore, in a country where almost 30% of the population lives below the poverty line and struggles to make ends meet, this demand is unaffordable and impractical in nature.
WAR has repeatedly stressed the importance of forensic evidence and the need to use it constructively in rape cases. “From the rapist’s sweat and strands of hair to the dust trapped inside the fingernails of the victim, there is an immense amount of evidence available at the crime scene and on the victim’s body in most cases,” Humayun said. “There is a need to collect the evidence properly so it can be used to construct a strong case against the accused.”
Ideally, the victim should be taken to a medico-legal officer immediately after she has been abused for collection of evidence. The problem lies in the fact there are very few female medico-legal officers throughout the country and the equipment used for collection of evidence is outdated and inadequate. Meanwhile, a delay in getting to the medico-legal officer results in loss of evidence. Evidence might also be lost if the crime scene is not protected to prevent the evidence being tampered with. “The concept of cordoning off the crime scene to preserve evidence is gradually being introduced in Pakistan,” Aftab Phullarwan, Deputy Superintendent, Model Town Police Station, Lahore stated.
For survivors, getting a First Information Report (FIR) lodged against their wrongdoer is the first hurdle in a long and difficult path to securing justice. If the Station House Officer (SHO) is not present in the police station, the FIR cannot be registered. In some cases, victims and their families wait the whole day to no avail and return home dejected. According to Abdul Shakoor Chaudhry, a retired sessions judge from the Faisalabad district and current Advocate High Court, there should be a higher number of access points for the public to get an FIR lodged at their own ease and convenience. In this regard, a register to record information should be present at all times with all magistrates, chairman of the Union Council, and the registrar of the High Court.
There have also been accusations of condescending behaviour on the part of officers who refuse to file an FIR in some instances upon the request of the complainant. DSP Phullarwan denies the allegations. “No police station rejects lodging an FIR under any circumstances. We are not naive enough to throw away our livelihood by not following standard procedure. Even in cases with a weak claim, the FIR is registered and the investigation is carried out.” How effective the investigation techniques prove to be and to what extent they are influenced by political pressure and affluent families of the accused is a different story altogether. The recent advent of women police stations might serve to ease the hesitation of women who have gone through the painful ordeal and feel intimidated by the rough behaviour of male police officers.
In a country that has an overall literacy rate of merely 57%, it becomes extremely difficult for illiterate survivors from rural areas to get a report filed. Mukhtar Mai, whose gang rape in 2002 received international attention and raised an outcry in Pakistan, recalls how it was hard for her to file a police report and work on her case with lawyers without being able to read.
The next problem the survivors face is attaining a date for the court hearing of their case. The judicial process in Pakistan is extremely slow and cases linger on for years. The complainants eventually get tired of commuting to and from court and cutting work hours for a seemingly hopeless cause. During the trial itself, the survivor often has to give testimony standing in close proximity to her rapist which can be a traumatizing experience. WAR has proposed that a time-frame be set and strictly followed for deciding on rape cases to minimize inconvenience caused.
State institutions in Pakistan need to work collectively to bring about a change in the existing system and ensure the interests of all individuals in society are protected. According to Abdul Shakoor Chaudhry, state institutions and investigation agencies need to work together to achieve mutual goals and higher transparency while remaining free from all kinds of external influences. NGOs and human rights organizations, along with the media watchdog, should play their parts in bringing cases in remote areas to public attention while the judiciary should sift through the cases to discard sensationalized items and focus on the critical ones.
WAR has been guiding survivors in their fight for justice since 1989 and plans to carry on providing medical, legal, and psychological help despite a lack of funds. In the past few years, WAR has also initiated advocacy campaigns in order to prevent sexual violence. The families of survivors have an extremely important role to play in providing them with the moral support they require to gain the courage required to take a stand against injustice. “NGOs and social activists can only play their part effectively if they are supported by families of the survivors in their cause. In 99% of the cases, the families are supportive and understanding,” Humayun declared.