The recent gang-rape of a woman ordered by a panchayat (kangaroo court) in Muzaffargarh district has raised the question of how many more women will be subjected to the brutality and inhumane behaviour of societies that have little value for the female life and no value for her dignity.

In 2012, 822 rape cases were reported from across Pakistan with the largest share, of 676, from Punjab, statistics from the Aurat Foundation said (figures for 2013 are yet to be released).

But while these questions and statistics keep circulating in the news, at meetings of women rights organisations and lead to reactions from members of the public each time a rape case is reported, the sad reality is that after slight, and in most cases meaningless, debates, women and the problems associated with the societal issues plaguing them are once again forgotten…until the next case that is.

With a despairing five per cent conviction rate in rape cases, it is high time law enforcement agencies take responsibility for failing to provide justice to rape survivors.

Worse still, often rape survivors are made to endure a ‘second rape’ while trying to seek justice from authorities which are notorious for questioning them to a point where the treatment can begin to fall under the category of an insensitive ‘interrogation’. Survivors are made to repeatedly detail the incidents of the crime, compelling them into a position where they must relive the horror. If that isn’t damaging enough, they have to narrate their ordeal again in open court.

And after all these efforts and emotional toil, more often than not, the accused are not convicted due to failure of sufficient evidence against them. As a result, there is little doubt, to what can be regarded as nothing short of a criminal silence on part of the authorities and the country's judicial system, being directly proportional to more cases of rape.

“Yes it does encourage rape,” says Muktaran Mai, one of the most high profile gang rape survivors who now runs a charitable school for girls. Mai was raped on the orders of a local panchayat. “I fought my case for 10 years and none of them were punished. They rape because they know they can get away with it.”

Advocate Faisal Siddiqi agrees with Mai. “Obviously it does.” Explaining the two major reasons why he believes it is the case, Siddiqi says: “In most reported cases the rape survivor is poor and cannot afford good legal counsel and secondly there is no accountability for judges who give acquittals in rape cases.”

Board member for War Against Rape and Manager Strategic Planning for Aurat Foundation Sarah Zaman shares Siddiqi’s opinion.

“Definitely, the low conviction rate is promoting rape,” Zaman says. “There is no fear of conviction or punishment and the weak collection of evidence and a subsequent loosely-prepared case presentation in the court allows rapists to go free.”

According to Zaman, who has been working arduously for rehabilitation and justice for rape survivors for several years, defence lawyers are accustomed to the “loopholes in the systems and are well-versed in how to pass off a woman in a negative light”. Furthermore, with the high requirement for corroborate evidence there is little hope conviction rates will improve, she adds.

Parallel systems for justice such as panchayats and jirgas continue to operate and ruthlessly sanction rape for any so-called crime they may deem fit. While the Sindh High Court has placed a ban on jirgas and the country's law also addresses the problem, the practice of holding these courts continues unabated, especially in parts of southern Punjab.

Collection of evidence

Siddiqi explains that the woman’s testimony that remains “unshaken” in the witness box in a court of law is the sole and sufficient grounds for conviction. “No further evidence, not even forensic, is required beyond her testimony,” he explains.

But reported cases have shown a string of acquittals based on “insufficient evidence” or “failure to provide four witnesses”. A prime example is the gang rape case near Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum which made national headlines. Despite conclusive forensic evidence, the accused were acquitted due to the plaintiff’s failure to provide four witnesses for the crime.

It is often reported that rape survivors do not immediately go to register their cases. This delay, which in some cases is of a few days, is the first step in weakening their case against the accused as it typically means losing hold of the evidence.

Police Surgeon Jalil Qadir explains the process and requirements for collection of forensic evidence in rape cases. “Forensic evidence needs to be collected as soon as possible after the crime has been committed,” Qadir explains. “But in most cases the lady is kidnapped and then used for sexual acts. She is then either released by her captors or recovered by authorities or others after a few days.”

In either case, the woman must be immediately brought in before she washes herself and all clothing and other supporting evidence must not be tampered with, Qadir adds.

Once the items are brought in they must be sent without delay for analysis and herein lies another problem.

“Once the police officer has collected the evidence they must wait until they receive permission from higher authorities before sending it to a forensic lab for analysis. This causes yet another delay which damages the efficacy of the evidence.”

The question that authorities and the country's legal system need to answer now is whether they are helping in deterring these crimes by not making prosecution and conviction more efficient.

— With additional reporting from Hassnain Ghayyur in Islamabad.

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