Photo courtesy: Aurat March Islamabad  Twitter

Public hangings, castration are no solutions and bringing them up detracts the debate for real reforms

There are sufficient laws to tackle the offences of rape, gang rape and child sexual abuse but they are not being implemented.
Published September 21, 2020

The Lahore-Sialkot motorway gang rape of the woman in front of her children, after her car broke down on September 9, has shaken the nation and prompted country-wide outrage followed by protests and fuelled further by the police.

In the administrative corridors, too, it has sent out shockwaves with none other than the Prime Minister Imran Khan calling for severest punishments and some new legislation. "Such brutality and bestiality cannot be allowed in any civilised society," he said.

But the PM's own proposal for punishing the offenders through "public hanging and chemical castration" has drawn a mixed reaction with some experts who see it as nothing less than violent. And because capital punishment may be viewed negatively internationally, suggestions have been floated that sex offenders undergo chemical or even surgical castration to curb rising sexual violence.

"Responding to violence with violence has never worked," points out Dr Ayesha Mian, a psychiatrist at Karachi's Aga Khan University Hospital.

Neither in favour of public hanging nor chemical castration, she dismisses both ideas, saying these may prove to provide momentary satiation and some symbolic respite, but that they are far from being long-term solutions.

Finding such remarks an indication of a "brutalised society", human rights activist I.A. Rehman was not in the least bit surprised. "There are mini Ziaul Haqs sitting inside of our leaders," he says. What shocked and disappointed him more, however, was "the reception they [leaders] get".

No to public hangings, no to death penalty

Even if half the country, along with the PM, is baying for the blood of perpetrators through public hanging, it cannot happen as it will be a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution upheld by both the Supreme Court of Pakistan as well as the Federal Shariat Court, points out Saroop Ijaz, who is currently Senior Counsel, Asia for Human Rights Watch.

Interestingly, the prime minister's hands are tied not only because of the Constitution but by the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) that is extended to Pakistan by the European Union. "Unfortunately, when we had the discussion, [we were] told it would not be internationally acceptable," the premier said in a recent interview, in reference to the punishment of public hanging.

But other than that, Ijaz points out that "the punishment of public hanging also violates Pakistan's international human rights commitments". He fears that the "welcoming" of it was a clear sign of a brutalised society, which has witnessed and experienced unrelenting violence. "It is the state's responsibility to heal this and not exacerbate it or pander to it," says the HRW's country representative.

Not completely averse to capital punishment and only "reserved for habitual offenders and where evidence makes the case water-tight", educationist and peace activist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy did not, however, favour public hangings either. "Under no circumstances should a public spectacle be allowed, since this brutalises society," he says, endorsing both Rehman and Ijaz.

A formidable opponent of death penalty "because it is not a punishment, neither is it a deterrent to crimes", Rehman says the death sentence relieves the person instantly and permanently from reflecting and contemplating on the gravity of the offence committed or to even pay for it by living through a punishment.

Hoodbhoy also holds the opinion that extreme punishments are never a deterrent. "It is the certainty that you will be apprehended by an effective law-enforcement system that acts as a far greater deterrence," says Hoodbhoy.

Is the Pakistani woman safe anywhere?

Like Rehman, 32-year-old Srosh Anwar, a communications consultant, feels punishments prescribed referred to by the prime minister "may work for the moment" but the longer term solution requires a change in the mindsets of most men.

Scheduled to drive herself home from Islamabad to Lahore the day after the motorway gang rape, it took her three days "to calm my nerves" and brace herself to make the journey, says Anwar, who is working with development organisations in Islamabad and driving on the motorway by herself has been a routine since she moved to Islamabad from Lahore three years ago.

"My car was my safety bubble away from the sick society outside," she says, referring to the rampant harassment — from catcalls to groping — that Pakistani women using public transport experience routinely.

But after the motorway gang rape, it has become evident that a woman is not safe anywhere.

"It [the motorway rape] has made me completely disheartened with society," says Anwar, adding that she was now seriously contemplating about moving out of Pakistan.

Artist and photographer Jamal Ashquain agrees with Anwar and remarks: "The society will continue to oppress women without the realisation of how problematic this imbalance in power dynamics is and how important gender equality is for a civilised society to nurture and progress."

Raise our boys differently, make them more humane

Psychiatrist Mian has a solution. "We need to raise our boys differently; change the discourse, teach them that compassion, empathy, kindness are not just ‘feminine’ attributes but ‘humanistic ones; to not inculcate a false sense of machismo that they have the ultimate responsibility and that they need to stay strong under all circumstances," she says.

"They need to be told that it is alright to feel hurt, to cry, and to be kind," she adds. This breaks the gender gap, where a man currently sees the woman as ‘weak’ for being human.

Dr Mian refers to findings showing fathers who take an active role in raising their babies, especially daughters, feeding and changing them, reading and putting them to sleep etc, are less likely to be violent as they tune into and nurture the gentle and caring part of their personalities.

Dr Mian says it is important to investigate why men act the way they do in our context before solutions can be sought. "There is a need for some serious socio-cultural and anthropological introspection and research to understand this behaviour."

"The behaviour of sexual predators do not have roots in mental health illness as is often believed but may have ecological and evolutionary underpinnings," she points out.

For centuries now, she says, men have felt a certain degree of entitlement that is exhibited variously through wielding anger, intimidation and aggression, both physical (including violating the vulnerable and the weaker sexually) and emotional.

Research has shown that many of these perpetrators exhibit lower levels of empathy with no understanding about the long term damage their actions result in on a rape survivor.

The motorway gang rape incident, Dr Mian says, has provided a window of opportunity to actively build awareness around this and change gender stereotypes from the get go.

Castration won't work

One of the punishments the prime minister has proposed is chemically castrating the rapist.

The newest country to impose chemical castration but as a non-optional punishment for certain sex offenders is Indonesia. Poland is also one country where the punishment is mandatory in specific cases. But in the US, the UK, South Korea, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the procedure is offered to the convict as a voluntary one that they can choose.

"Castration will render the perpetrator incapable, but he will be a bitter, angry and frustrated person and will go on to commit other forms of torturous offences," says Dhun Kaikobad, a Pakistani teaching at a public school in the UK.

Chemical castration is a non-invasive method carried out through drugs to reduce the libido and sexual activity and is generally considered reversible once the treatment is discontinued. It has been used on sex offenders but is prescribed to be accompanied with psychiatric evaluation and treatment, as well as psychotherapy.

"I don't think it [chemical castration] will cause any big problems when it comes to physical health, but psychologically, the person will suffer, including from anger and depression," says physician Dr Shershah Syed.

However, endocrinologist, Dr Tasnim Ahsan, says there are health consequences of long term androgen blockade, which include osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease. "If I were to advise this to someone with high a sex drive, I would first get a psychiatric evaluation and prescribe it with the person's informed consent," she says.

The problem is of power, not 'uncontrollable sexual urge'

Sara Malkani, a Karachi-based lawyer who is against this form of punishment does not see the purpose of castration "because we know the problem is not of uncontrollable sexual urge but of control and power". She says this pronouncement by the prime minister has only detracted the debate from rape, its prevention, and the flawed accountability system, including weak investigation.

And, points out Ijaz, it does nothing to protect the women if the system does not "encourage them to report rape and prosecute and convict the perpetrators".

Besides, castration is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party, points out Malkani.

However, the call has hit the right nerve with the public that is sick of years of inaction on part of the state. This has made them feel that the "government is finally serious about tackling such crimes, and that has satisfied them for now," says Malkani.

Kaikobad, also a trained counsellor, says that more than such extreme form of punishments, what is needed is reforms, empowering women and girls, and mass campaigns to share information with the public on human rights, on protecting the vulnerable, and to generate empathy among them, so the impunity with which such offences are committed can be fought.

Rehman agrees. "We look at such events merely as police cases and therefore handle them as such without going into the social underpinnings of why such crimes take place or how to counter and address them," he says, adding: "Women need to be trained to defend themselves, sex education should be taught in schools and there needs to be research carried out to find answers as to why these men are committing sexual violence."

Sufficient laws but what about implementation?

The prime minsiter has also ordered "fresh legislation" to protect women and children, whose lives and families have been "destroyed because of abuse", but Malkani says there are sufficient laws to tackle the offences of rape, gang rape and child sexual abuse.

She says all the offences carried very high penalties of life imprisonment and when it comes to the offences of rape and gang rape, even death.

The real focus, to her mind, should be on understanding why there were "cracks" in their implementation.

"We should be fixing those [cracks] through training of investigation officers, inducting more medico-legal officers, and including more females in the police force et cetera," she recommends.