SOCIETY: TRAPPED BY TABOOS

Published April 21, 2024
Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

April is recognised as the Sexual Assault Awareness Month globally. In Pakistan, though, sexual awareness remains a controversial topic and it is often falsely equated with promoting immorality and indecency. In reality, it is to the contrary and sexual awareness plays a pivotal role in preventing sexual violence, which is rampant in our society.

Sexual violence in general, and against minors in particular, is a crime that is under-reported, with an extremely low conviction rate across Pakistan. Various sociocultural factors play a role in perpetuating and facilitating this heinous crime.

Recently, a harrowing video from Toba Tek Singh came to light, where a man could be seen strangling his younger sister to death, while their father and brother silently witnessed the murder. Since then, the girl’s father and one brother have been charged with murder. Unfortunately, this case is not an anomaly.

A WIDESPREAD MALAISE

According to the Human Rights Watch report of 2024, the child rights organisation Sahil reported an average of over 12 cases daily of child sexual abuse across Pakistan for the first six months of 2023.

This is despite the fact that cases of sexual violence are grossly under-reported in the country. Cultural, religious, legal and state barriers exacerbate the stigma associated with adequate reporting of such cases.

While legislation continues to take place against sexual violence, implementation remains an issue, with sexual awareness still the key to combatting and preventing this widespread malaise…

In my clinical practice, I see a high incidence of sexual abuse of minors across the board, regardless of their gender, ethnicity and socio-economic class. In most cases, such individuals come to therapy years after repeated incidents of violence have taken place, with issues related to significant emotional disturbances and disruptive behavior.

They are usually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) much later, once they decide to seek help. The perpetrators, in most of these cases, are someone from their family or a respected member of their community.

THE COST OF ‘HONOUR’

In one case, a 15-year-old was brought to therapy, after she told her mother that she was molested by her brother-in-law when she was ten. She had flashbacks of the traumatic incident after watching a drama depicting a similar scene.

Her mother told me that she was not in a position to confront the perpetrator out of fear that he would divorce her other daughter. The survivor was counselled by the family to move on and not focus on issues that might bring shame to the family.

Shame, stigma and obsolete ideas of honour dissuade individuals and their families from coming forward to bring justice to the survivor. A lot of illicit activities are rampant in our society under the garb of honour.

The prevailing idea is that sexual assault brings shame to a family’s dignity, so it is best to hide it. Minors must cope not only with the harrowing emotional consequences of criminal acts and the effects of the news on their family, but also deal with the traumatising effects of legal proceedings.

In his book Shame: The Power of Caring, author Gershen Kaufman describes shame as “a natural reaction to being violated or abused. In fact, abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanising.”

Survivors feel defiled and helpless after the abuse and some might even blame themselves for what they suffered. The powerlessness that the survivors face after abuse leads to them feeling humiliation, which then triggers shame. Identifying and removing this internalised shame is the key to recovery.

RESPONSE FRAMEWORK

Legally, there are limited options available to the survivors seeking support. The Sindh government has developed the Sexual Violence Response Framework (SVRF), with technical support of the Legal Aid Society (LAS), to implement laws and policies relating to sexual violence, including rape, in the province of Sindh.

The LAS is a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation founded by Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, a respected jurist who is a former chief justice of the Sindh High Court and who also served on the Supreme Court. Its main objective is to serve marginalised and underprivileged communities to reduce challenges in accessing justice.

The SVRF was developed in collaboration with various stakeholders from civil society, lawyers, police and other relevant government departments and institutions. It included the provincial home department, the law and parliamentary affairs department, the criminal prosecution department and the women development department.

Its aim is to improve the response to sexual violence in the province and reduce its occurrence to the greatest possible extent. It constitutes primary, secondary and tertiary measures.

Advocate Basam Ali Dahri, who is the litigation manager at LAS, says that, in recent times, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of addressing sexual violence through legislative measures. “However, while significant strides have been made in lawmaking, there remains a pressing need for more effective implementation of these laws,” he notes.

LEGISLATIVE LEG UP

The litigator informs Eos that several key legislations have been enacted in Pakistan, particularly in Sindh in this regard, such as the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013, the Sindh Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act of 2013, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2016, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2021 and the landmark Anti-Rape Act of 2021.

Dahri says advocacy efforts, including by activists and actors such as LAS, have played a pivotal role in pushing for these amendments to the criminal law. “Legal professionals in Pakistan are now becoming acquainted with the nuances of the new laws pertaining to sexual violence.”

To hammer home his point, Dahri points out how the Sindh Domestic Violence Act is particularly noteworthy for its inclusivity, as it defines domestic abuse as encompassing not just physical, but also psychological, verbal and emotional abuse.

Similarly, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2016 introduced Section 337B into the Pakistan Penal Code, criminalising the act of molesting a girl under the age of 18, even with her consent, thus establishing 18 years as the age of consent.

“The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2021 has rendered the offence of rape gender-neutral, ensuring that individuals of all gender identities, including transgender persons, are protected from sexual violence,” he elaborates.

Additionally, he continues, the Anti-Rape Act of 2021 has introduced enhanced procedures for sexual violence trials, including the establishment of specialised police units, tasked with investigating such cases and providing support and protection to survivors.

SUPPORTING SURVIVORS

The cultural stigma around sexual abuse needs to be addressed so that families treat sexual abuse just like any other crime. Families need to be educated that the crime committed is bigger than the fear of familial discord or the blow to the family’s reputation in public. All these counterproductive constructs only serve to obstruct justice and emboldens the perpetrator to continue.

Besides ensuring that the survivors get adequate support, it is imperative that steps are taken to prevent sexual violence from taking place. Preventive measures include primary interventions, such as providing education related to puberty, reproductive health and good touch/bad touch. Organisations like Aahung are already working on incorporating essential knowledge regarding reproductive health in a skills-based teaching curriculum.

Nationwide campaigns identifying appropriate and inappropriate sexual conduct would create awareness. Community outreach programmes with parents and families, which target attitudes related to gender and sex-based issues, would facilitate in dispelling the stigma surrounding the topic.

Prevention strategies are multifaceted and can serve as supplementary interventions in sexual and reproductive health (SRH), adolescent health and mental health campaigns.

Preventing sexual violence in a conservative society like Pakistan is an uphill, but not impossible task. Disseminating accurate information about the risk and protective factors, addressing misconceptions and dispelling myths would help in making sure it is no longer taboo.

The writer is a clinical psychologist and a freelance journalist. She can be reached at rabeea.saleem21@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 21st, 2024

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