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Legal reforms, not hollow punishments, will deliver justice for rape victims in Pakistan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, appeared determined when he gave a televised interview on 14 September 2020 and called for rapists to be chemically castrated. The star cricketer-turned-Prime Minister’s statements came less than a week after armed robbers gang-raped a woman in front of her children after her car ran out of fuel on a motorway by Lahore, sending shockwaves throughout Pakistan. 

Many had feared it would be another case of sexual violence in the country that would quickly be forgotten. But the appalling crime sparked nationwide protests and outrage that garnered notice at the highest levels of government. “They should be given exemplary punishments,” the PM said during the interview.

During a federal cabinet meeting on 24 November, Mr. Khan’s government presented draft legislation to implement this punishment into law, along with new anti-rape ordinances. On 15 December, Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi signed into law the Anti-Rape Ordinance 2020. This includes measures to speed up rape trials, improve medico-legal examinations following rapes, create a national sex offender registry, and allow chemical castration of rapists. Disclosing the identities of the victims will also be prohibited under the ordinance, and police officials being negligent and unprofessional in investigating cases could be penalised.

But the chemical castration proposal from the country’s leader, while probably a genuine attempt to show that he understands the people’s anger, is misguided and hollow

For the most part, these legal measures appear to be headed in the right direction in tackling the main issues of Pakistan’s flawed legal system. The application of laws needs be toughened, with proper procedural attention directed towards rape. But the chemical castration proposal from the country’s leader, while probably a genuine attempt to show that he understands the people’s anger, is misguided and hollow. 

The penalty for rape in Pakistan is already severe, with convicted rapists potentially liable to life imprisonment or even execution. The rape conviction rate however, is less than 3%, according to Karachi-based advocacy group War Against Rape (WAR). Mr. Khan’s proposed punishment would mean little for rape survivors and even littler for rapists who are rarely prosecuted, let alone convicted. 

Critics, including the PM’s own Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry, questioned the proposal’s usefulness and considered it pointless. In Pakistan, poor implementation of laws and woeful handling of rape cases have allowed sexual crimes to be committed with near impunity and made rape very hard to prosecute.  

DNA evidence, vital for prosecution, is rendered useless by understaffed forensic teams, inadequate facilities, and outdated testing methods. The police’s inadequate and loophole-heavy evidence collection methods jeopardise cases, said lawyer Asma Mushtaq

In Pakistan, poor implementation of laws and woeful handling of rape cases have allowed sexual crimes to be committed with near impunity and made rape very hard to prosecute

Increasing the punishment is futile when the organs of the justice system are inefficient and lacklustre. Systematic flaws in the justice system have allowed rapists to evade due process, which the new ordinance is seeking to resolve. A combination of judiciary, police, and societal shortcomings has tipped the balance in favour of rapists. 

Women who report rape are sometimes treated degradingly by the courts. Past judgments have considered victims’ ‘loose morals’ and ‘easy virtue’ as evidence of consent, dismissing their cases altogether. The Asia Foundation, an international development organization, found that many victims, whose testimonies are crucial for conviction, settle with the perpetrators out-of-court under coercion or threat. 

Mr. Chaudhry stated that around 5,000 rapes are reported each year in Pakistan, further claiming that “if we were to count the unreported rapes, there would be thousands more.” Numerous rapes go unreported because victims fear hostility and societal humiliation. Some are pressured into staying silent out of respect for themselves and their families. The PM stated: “You do not know the real statistics as well, because it’s under-reported. People do not report (rape) due to being scared or ashamed.” 

More efficient police and court procedures with better medical examinations could help tackle sexual crimes in Pakistan and offer renewed hope for victims

Lawyer Osama Malik blamed social stigma and the “abhorrently misogynistic attitude” of many policemen for this underreporting. Police sometimes look down on rape victims and in turn blame them for their plight. The woman raped on the motorway was also blamed by a police officer investigating the case for travelling at night on a secluded road without enough fuel. This added to already furious public sentiment on the trivialisation of rape victims and the victim-blaming culture in the country. 

The new ordinance is expected to deal with these problems, with the privacy of rape victims to be protected both from public attention as well as police and court debasement. More efficient police and court procedures with better medical examinations could help tackle sexual crimes in Pakistan and offer renewed hope for victims. These would bring about a change, not chemical castration.

Extreme punishments for rape are not unheard of in Pakistan. Passed in 1979, military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s laws allowed for rapists to be stoned to death. But the pre-requisite of four eyewitnesses to the crime made this practically impossible. More than 40 years since, legal loopholes are little changed, and attention-grabbing responses take precedence over real action after incidents of rape. But the latest reforms could make a real difference in the country, provided they are implemented properly and attitudes towards rape and sexual assault change.

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