Pakistan - Sexual Violence & Incest - Shrouded in Silence - Analysis

Lahore, Pakistan – International human rights organization Equality Now, in conjunction with WAR Lahore, an organization dedicated to addressing sexual abuse convened a two day workshop on sexual violence in Pakistan. The meeting was held at the Punjab University Law College in Lahore on 13-14 December 2010, and brought together over 40 activists, lawyers and service providers from across Pakistan. There was also representation of judges and medico-legal personnel.

Cases of sexual violence, especially incest, in Pakistan are shrouded in silence and often go unreported because of the formidable social stigma attached to them. In the rare instance that cases are reported, victims face insurmountable barriers in their quest for justice and sometimes end up being re-victimized through the justice system. Most often the police resist registering complaints, perpetrators are either never apprehended or freed with impunity, the court systems are ill-equipped to deal with these cases, and victims’ access to timely physical and psychological care is extremely limited. It was felt that there was a need for a comprehensive national dialogue to put forth solutions to various obstacles victims face in seeking justice. “It is our hope that activists and other stakeholders learned from each other and will use good practices from other countries to strategize on ways in which Pakistan can undertake reforms to better address the complex needs of victims of sexual violence, including sexual violence within the family,” says Yasmeen Hassan, Deputy Executive Director of Equality Now.

The workshop aimed to analyze problems with the justice system by highlighting obstacles encountered by victims in accessing justice and drew upon legal reform examples from other countries. It sought to examine current service provision and identified the unmet needs of victims of sexual violence, such as physical and psychological health services and shelters. In addition, it sought to develop strategies to prevent such violence by examining its root causes and engaging the media to change prevalent gender stereotypes that contribute to such violence. Special emphasis was laid on examining the handling of incest cases within the legal system, an issue that has thus far received scarce attention in Pakistan. “Pakistan is way behind other countries as its laws do not even specifically recognize incest as an offence. Other countries, including Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan, specifically spell out the offence of incest in their Penal Code sections on sexual violence and provide higher penalties for this offence” adds Ms. Hassan.

“Safeguarding the rights and well-being of the victims of sexual violence is absolutely crucial,” says Sidra Humayun of WAR, Lahore. “Right now many crucial stakeholders, including the police, judges, medico-legal staff and media personnel, are quick to blame and doubt the victim,” she continues. Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq, a lawyer with experience in handling such cases adds, “There is a need for an amendment in the rape law, as well as qanoon-e-shahadat. Special rules of evidence need to be put in place regarding vulnerable victims. Better standards of medico-legal examination and police investigation will ensure conviction. The Presiding Officers of courts conducting these trials need to ensure that there is no harassment of the victim during cross-examination and to counter deliberate delaying tactics by the parties.”

Participants in the workshop issued several recommendations to give victims better access to justice, including strengthening the law on rape by adding provisions on incest, rape by duty-bearers, and sexual assault and molestation, and ensuring that the criminal justice system has a more victim centered approach by expediting trials, providing for in camera testimony and prohibiting degrading language in cross-examinations. In addition, participants recommended strengthening the provision of services to survivors including by the adoption of protocols and guidelines for service provision by all relevant governmental and non-governmental organizations, training to all service providers and greater availability of shelters and services. Recommendations on preventing sexual violence included working with schools and communities to empower girls and to raise awareness.