Culture of silence must come to an end in Pakistan

It is time for the authorities in Islamabad to ensure that all incidents of rape are reported and the guilty are punished severely.

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The rape of a five-year-old girl in Pakistan last month was a heinous crime that brought widespread attention to the severity of the country’s sexual abuse problem.

The innocent girl was kidnapped by unknown men from outside her home in Lahore and brutally raped and then left outside a hospital. It was an appalling episode that prompted public outrage. The girl is still fighting for her life.

What is most disturbing about all this is the frequency of such crimes in Pakistan: a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted on September 16 by four men for two consecutive days in Faisalabad city in Punjab province. A four-year-old schoolboy was allegedly gang-raped on September 18 by a school principal and his accomplices in Faisalabad, while on the same day another four-year-old boy was raped in Sadiqabad area in Punjab.

Last year, 150 complaints of rape of women, children and minor girls were made in a country where the majority of rape cases usually go unreported.

The number of cases in Pakistan raises questions about the country’s criminal justice system, which has been unable to ensure fair and speedy trials to bring rapists to justice. The legal bottlenecks which the culprits exploit to escape punishment, coupled with an overall failure of the state to punish the rapists, is the main reason behind the failure to stem the prevalence of rape in Pakistan.

How many rapists have so far been punished for their crimes?

It is a stark reality that the judiciary has been unable to adequately deal with rape investigation and prosecution. A legal and official failure to punish the culprits simply means an apparent official sanctioning of rape.

Thankfully, the investigation into the rape case of the girl in Lahore is underway. The police have taken DNA samples, which is the accepted international norm in determining the identity of the rapists. But there has been a controversy over admissibility of DNA reports as evidence in rape cases in Pakistan.

In May 2013, the council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body that gives legal advice on Islamic issues to the government, declared that DNA tests are not admissible as the main evidence in rape cases and that the rape complaints must be determined under Islamic laws. The CII has now left it to the judiciary to decide the admissibility of DNA evidence in a rape trial.

The rape-related laws could be changed, but what is also needed is to bring change in the attitudes towards the victims and the rapists.

Take the case of Mukhtara Mai, a victim of a politically sanctioned gang rape.

Mai was gang-raped in 2002 on the orders of a village council as punishment, after her 12-year old brother was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.

She charged her attackers with rape and boldly spoke out and pursued a case against her rapists. Initially, the lower courts sentenced the five rapists to death, but the country’s higher court set them free in April 2011.

The case received international attention after activists supported Mai and her case got wide coverage in the media. Mai was initially denied the right to leave the country.

Former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf responded that he had relented over the matter and reportedly said: “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”

There are some signs, however, that attitudes are changing and that the reluctance to report rape is gradually diminishing.

The culture of silence over rape can only come to an end when the people openly condemn the incidence of rape and raise their voices against all forms of this heinous crime.

Sex remains a taboo subject in Pakistani society, and certainly not one to be discussed with children.

That hesitation is natural. But parents should warn and educate their children about sexual predators who may contact them in schools, streets, parks, playgrounds or anywhere outside home. A lack of awareness to dangers makes children easy prey.

The laws must be amended too, to administer the harshest possible punishments to Pakistan’s rapists. The government should urgently enact pending child protection laws, which include meting out maximum punishments without parole, remission or pardon for those who are convicted of such crimes.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan