THE case of a teenaged girl, allegedly gang-raped by police officials earlier this month in Mansehra, was not an isolated incident. There have been others where law-enforcing agencies were accused of having been involved in such crimes.
Independent rights groups have pointed out that the majority of women in police custody are subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Given this situation, the lower echelons of the police force can hardly be expected to look upon domestic violence, rape, incest and ‘honour’ killing as punishable offences. This is not only because of cultural biases or ignorance. Incidents of violence are also disregarded when money is exchanged or there is pressure from influential officials to not register a complaint.
Unfortunately, the question is not merely one of an insensitive force. When police fail to immediately register a rape victim’s complaint, crucial and potentially incriminating evidence is lost. Meanwhile, written complaints often go against the victim who must endure humiliating questioning by policemen who could blame her for instigating a rape attack.
Victims of violent crime — gang-raped and brutally beaten, others stripped and physically abused, young teenagers sexually abused by fathers, uncles and brothers — often remain silent, recognising perhaps the obstacles in their fight for justice. The social taboo attached to such crime further deters them from reporting it. The justice system fails female victims, often re-victimising them in court by incriminating them as ‘loose’ women.
Given this scenario — the social disgrace faced by raped women, a police force that does not care — laws to protect women are only useful if implemented with legislative awareness and mindset change. Legal experts claim the majority of cases go unreported or are covered up despite all legislative changes and the pro-women lobbyists in parliament. Beyond that, only five per cent of rape cases end in convictions.
In the Mansehra case, demands for a judicial commission headed by a high court judge have had no results even though the district police officer has openly admitted that members of his force are culpable. A key witness, a female police officer, is missing after the police initially brought the young victim to her home for a night in the absence of a women’s cell.
The media is also partially to blame in this as it highlights aspects that contribute to sensationalising the crime. Irrelevant reporting about the victim’s past, comments on her character, profession or clothing, is unethical and compromise the victim’s safety. In the Mansehra case, for instance, the reason the victim was on her own was unclear. Some sections of the press described her as a ‘runaway’, given that at a media briefing she said that she had left Karachi with her fiancé but he disappeared. While describing her as such is bad enough, the fact that she was made to recount her ordeal at a public press conference is worse. Not only did the authorities fail to protect her identity as a minor, she was indirectly made out to be responsible for her suffering.
Most victims of such crime are denied justice through the courts, often forced to live in the same locality as the alleged rapist or sent into exile with their families. Perpetrators with political backing are freed in most instances, even threatening the victim and her family. When two women were raped in December 2010 in Karachi’s Defence area, the incident was so callously portrayed by police, government officials and sections of the media that rights activists were up in arms.
In 2005 in Sui, Balochistan, a doctor was raped and brutally beaten. When she reported the incident, she was placed under house arrest, the evidence was apparently tampered with and the accused, a captain in the army, was acquitted. Eventually, she was forced into exile with her husband.
In other similar crimes, the law-enforcers are complicit because of their inaction, even though legally the punishment applicable can be life imprisonment or death. Last month, a 63-year-old woman and her sister older by two years were locked up and disrobed by five men in Muzaffargarh. Tied to a motorbike and paraded naked, their ordeal was filmed on cellphones.
Some officials say that the lack of police intervention confirms their complicity, but the police claim that because the family involved was influential in the district, they feared violent reaction.
When crime goes unreported for fear of reprisals, when victims have no confidence in the lower district courts, and where the traditional feudal order runs a parallel policing and justice system, education about legal rights must become a priority. Failing to register a complaint should hold severe repercussions for the police, especially in rural areas where accessibility is problematic for victims. An implementing and monitoring group (equipping women’s police stations with resources and knowledge) working in tandem with the women’s ministry and the National Commission on the Status of Women must sensitise the police to protect women.
Teaching people to respect women’s right as equal citizens, even within culturally acceptable parameters, would require institutionalising gender information in police academies and for law and policy students. Grass-roots education campaigns targeting the semi-literate involving district and religious leaders could lead to altering mindsets. Reforming district courts, because the judiciary is where the buck stops, will result in higher conviction rates.
Re-examining the national judicial policy must be a priority for the next government. Women’s integration is important for the political economy; this may be impossible in its entirety given the position of the religious right, but efforts in this regard could reduce the violence that women suffer.
The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.