KARACHI: “There are a higher number of acquittals in cases of sexual violence due to defects in investigation making the prosecution weak,” said Anwar Mahar, deputy district prosecutor general, Sindh.

He was speaking at a dialogue on the state’s response to sexual violence in Sindh held under the project on ‘Improving government of Sindh’s response to sexual violence’ jointly organised by the women development department, government of Sindh, and Legal Aid Society (LAS) at a local hotel here on Tuesday.

“Here witnesses too are not cooperating in coming to the witness box due to our use of traditional modes of recording evidence as we are not trying alternative modes,” he added, while explaining that traditional modes meant for witnesses to appear before the court in the presence of the accused where they would obviously hesitate.

Majority of medico-legal officers are not trained in collecting proper evidence, moot told

“Therefore, it has been recommended to use alternative modes while recording of evidence such as using video recordings and video links or using protective screens or digitally changing the voice during cross examination,” he said.

Dr Summaiya Syed Tariq, additional police surgeon, spoke about the role of DNA and forensic evidence in rape and cases of sexual violence. “Most medico-legal officers are not trained in collecting proper medical evidence. Medical evidence is what really bridges the gap between the crime and the criminal justice system,” she said.

She also said that as per law there was a need for four witnesses in these kind of cases, “But,” she said, “physical evidence, circumstantial evidence, chemical evidence and DNA can be those four witnesses.”

While speaking about investigations into cases of sexual violence, Akbar Javed Riaz, PSP, DIGP crime branch (investigation) Sindh, said that Sindh police had a special wing and was developing expertise to strengthen prosecution of cases. “We have introduced training modules for investigation officers, who will also be held responsible for poor performance,” he said, while adding that they had also increased the number of female officers for the job. “The impact of all these positive initiatives will be seen soon enough,” he said.

Alia Shahid, secretary, women development department, Sindh, spoke about moving towards a coordinated effort towards prevention, response and rehabilitation. “Coordination is also an issue. We are failing miserably at coordination. We need strong dissemination where every stakeholder knows what to do and we need better data collection, monitoring and evaluation,” she said.

Shelter homes and crisis centres

Nuzhat Shirin, chairperson, Sindh Commission on the Status of Women, spoke about shelter homes and crisis centres in the context of violence against women. She also spoke about their meagre budget of Rs19 million in contrast to Punjab’s Rs200m budget and Punjab’s six-year commission and Sindh’s two-year commission and the few shelter homes in Sindh.

“There are around 12 shelter homes in Sindh, which need to come under a single umbrella, which is not the case. Then when we visited these places in Larkana, Sukkur and Hyderabad we found out that while there were supposed to be 25 staff members in each there were actually only two or three. Some were on leave while there were posts also lying vacant. And things were even worse at the private shelter homes,” she informed.

Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson, National Commission on the Status of Women, said that after reading and seeing sensational stories in the media, some of which were accurate and some were not, they thought of carrying out their own survey. “But in order for us to do that we first needed standardised indicators across the board,” she said, adding that data can also be gathered through case studies, which can help in advocacy.

Syeda Shehla Raza, Minister for Women Development, Sindh, said that they have complaint cells in 16 districts of Sindh. “My department has little staff and because of the restriction on new appointments we haven’t been able to reach all 29 districts. Still, we are doing all we can in spreading awareness and giving gender-based training,” she said.

“We are reaching out to schools, colleges and communities as we spread awareness. When an incident happens, a lot changes but it is wise to look into preventing incidents,” she said while talking about the Kasur incident and how people had become more sensitised after it to the issue of child abuse, which has helped them prepare an informative CD which they are distributing among parents now.

“When you start good work, you find good people to work with too,” she said, while telling how they met a psychiatrist who gave them written material about how to spread awareness and also do it through gender-based training. “Taking people on board we are also opening new doors,” she pointed out.

Legal steps taken to address sexual violence

Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, chairperson, Legal Aid Society, said that various efforts were made by state institutions at the legislative, policy and practice levels to address the problem of sexual violence and rape in Pakistan.

At the legislative level, there have been made two crucial legal amendments: The Criminal Law Amendment (Offenses Relating to Rape) Act, 2016 and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Sindh Amendment) Act, 2017. “The 2017 Sindh Act mandates DNA testing in cases of rape whereas the 2016 Amendment Act has significantly expanded the law by laying out detailed procedures and processes to implement the law,” he said. “Furthermore, judgments in the Salman Akram Raja case and the Kainat Soomro case have mandated specific actions for the government with regards to cases of sexual violence,” he added.

“However,” he said, “the serious nature of sexual violence and rape cases necessitate more coordinated efforts by the institutions of criminal justice system, in addition to developing mechanisms to operationalise these new amendments so as to better respond to the cases and provide speedy justice to the survivors and their families.”

Earlier, Maliha Zia, associate director, LAS, explained that when speaking about sexual abuse one automatically though of rape though it was a much bigger topic. Providing an overview of the sexual violence response framework, she said that access to justice was very important for victims of violence.

Fouzia Viqar, former chairperson, Punjab Commission on the Status of Women and Rifat Sardar, chairperson, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commission on the Status of Women, also spoke.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2019