THE full might of the law has been brought to bear on the perpetrators of an atrocity that shocked even this crime-weary nation. An anti-terrorism court in Lahore on Saturday sentenced to death and life imprisonment the two main accused in the motorway gang-rape case that occurred one night in September last year.

The men had come upon the victim while she, along with her two small children, was stranded on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway in a car that had run out of fuel. Dragging them all out into the nearby fields, they beat and raped the mother in front of the terrified minors. An uproar ensued when the news broke, and the IG Punjab ordered an extensive manhunt for the suspects. It was thus that they were finally arrested and tried at a speed not often seen here.

Although Dawn does not support the death penalty, the swift prosecution and the fact that the victim’s privacy was respected and she remained unidentified despite the publicity, may give other survivors of sexual violence some courage. However, the case also illustrated another major reason why the crime of rape is so grossly under-reported in this country, with an estimated nine out of 10 cases not even being registered with the police. That hurdle is the tendency of a misogynistic society to blame adult female victims for ‘bringing’ the crime on themselves by their appearance, actions, etc. Consider it was the then Lahore city police chief who suggested the motorway rape victim bore some responsibility for her ordeal by being out late at night. Such crass remarks further traumatise the victim, reinforce the ‘stigma’ of rape and act as a deterrent to reporting.

Read: Lahore CCPO apologises for remarks blaming motorway gang-rape victim

After a spate of horrific rape cases, President Arif Alvi in December promulgated the Anti-Rape Ordinance 2020. It expanded the definition of rape in terms of what acts constitute this crime and who can be defined as a victim, a much-needed step. The ordinance also stipulates measures to make the offence more prosecutable and act as a deterrent to its commission. These include anti-rape crisis cells; special courts for speedy trials of such cases; the establishment of a countrywide registry of sex offenders; and chemical castration of rapists, which is controversial on several fronts.

However, to bring in a law is one thing, and to ensure proper, foolproof investigation is another. Most cases of rape do not attract the kind of publicity the motorway case did. Often, the biases and judgemental attitudes of law-enforcement personnel can lead to lackadaisical and sloppy work of the kind that imperils convictions and allows rapists to go free on appeal. Intrusive and insensitive questioning of victims in court can also discourage them to pursue the case further. These aspects too need to be addressed. Rape victims need the support of society, not censure.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2021

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