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Unending child rape

August 11, 2018

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SEVEN months have elapsed since the rape and murder of little Zainab triggered national horror. Seven months in which this country — hungry for justice — intently scrutinised every detail of the investigation of the case, and the arrest, prosecution and conviction of her assailant. Yet, over this period, behind the scenes, official statistics reveal that 141 child rape cases (excluding those dismissed over ‘lack of evidence’ or other reasons) were reported in Lahore alone — with none so far resulting in a conviction, and the accused being granted bail by the courts in all cases. The dissonance between these and Zainab’s case underscores a fact that is unfortunately taken for granted during periods of collective outrage — that extensive media coverage and suo motu actions, which serve to expedite only a handful of cases, are no substitute for sustained reforms that permeate the entire edifice of a moribund criminal justice system. Though there is not enough newsprint to spotlight each case as much Zainab’s, it is essential to focus on some of the prevalent obstacles these young victims and their families face in their interactions with the criminal justice system.

First, of the few families who do officially report an assault, many find that the police refuse to even register their case, either due to indifference or, ironically, to avoid media scrutiny. Past this initial hurdle, investigations are typically mishandled. Interviews with child victims are rarely conducted with sensitivity, often leading to further trauma, and little effort is made to liaise with organisations that can provide counselling and legal aid, or to determine whether the victim is in need of protective services. Protocols for evidence gathering and the chain of custody are regularly flouted, invalidating the results of DNA testing — despite the fact that Lahore has one of the country’s few purportedly functional forensic laboratories. Even if properly collected and tested, most judges, wedded to arcane jurisprudence, put little stock in forensic evidence in the absence of eyewitness testimony. During trial, cases are often undermined by a combination of lethargic public prosecutors and defence attorneys (and at times even judges) who resort to victim blaming. This is what most parents seeking accountability for the horrific violence inflicted on their child must face in one of Pakistan’s largest cities, with a relatively well-staffed and well-resourced police force. The situation across the rest of Pakistan is equally, if not more, appalling. Will it ever change?

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2018