Last month, in a remote village in Dera Ismail Khan, a teenage girl’s life was upended.
Setting out one morning to perform the mundane task of getting water, she was abducted, stripped naked and forced to walk through her village. Now, it has emerged that she might be further victimised by the apparent existence of footage of the spectacle.
The news of this assault shocked the nation, even making international headlines. But the media spotlight and the victim’s petition to the Peshawar High Court has once again exposed that, for all of Pakistan’s legislative progress, women still face immense obstacles to accessing justice, particularly for gender-based crimes.
Despite legislation to protect women, a lack of sustained willpower to implement reforms has, day by day, ossified the weaknesses of the criminal justice system in supporting victims, and the wilfully regressive, all-too-prevalent mindset of treating women as pawns.
At the community level, women must contend with the brutality of the male-constituted jirga system that uses them as bargaining chips in resolving disputes and sanctions ‘punishments’ against them.
While apparently not directly involved in this assault, the local panchayat did arbitrate over a dispute between the victim’s and the main suspect’s families years ago. That the situation only escalated — from the accused kicking the victim’s mother then, to assaulting her now — is indicative of the culture of impunity for violence against women perpetuated by such alternative forms of ‘justice’.
At the police level, women contend with uncooperative officers who often prevaricate and minimise such attacks as petty rivalries instead of calling them violent crimes.
Consider that the victim’s mother claims she was initially prevented from registering an FIR, and that when it finally was registered later that day, the victim was pressured to lessen the charges. Curiously, within this interim, the police registered another FIR — this one against the victim’s brother.
Finally, at the political level, victims are forced to witness elected officials use their clout to settle political scores instead of protecting their vulnerable constituents. Often running their parties like jirgas, politicians have themselves been complicit in curtailing women’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Expecting women to negotiate all these obstacles after being victimised is inhumane.
The rot is deep, and only if the state demonstrates its absolute commitment to investigating and prosecuting every such crime, free of prejudice and external pressures, can we call ourselves a just society.
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2017