The horrific gang-rape incident that took place on 9th September, 2020 on the Lahore-Sialkot stretch of the M2 Motorway has sparked outrage for more reasons than one. A stranded woman was robbed and gang-raped in front of her two young children. The police arrived much too late and in a sad turn of events, not only did the state abandon members of the most vulnerable section of society, a woman and two young children, in their most desperate time of need, but also proceeded to blame the victim for the tragedy that had befallen her, in the most blatant disregard of its duties. The Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO), Umer Sheikh, responsible for overseeing the case, masked incompetence with misogyny when blaming the victim on national television. The Prime Minister, seemingly progressive in his struggle towards “Naya Pakistan”, issued a populist statement that was blatantly sexist and echoed the mindset of his more hard-lined, extremist Islamist support base. Instead of apoligising for or even acknowledging the absence of the state apparatus for the protection of women and children, the head of Government blamed the rise of rape incidents squarely on vulgarity in society, showcasing India as an example with a boldly speculative statement on how Bollywood has contributed a rise in rape incidences.
The women’s rights movement in Pakistan has experienced a recent re-awakening in the main-stream with the growth in popularity of the annual Women’s March, the rise of strong female figures across sports, arts, culture, politics etc. However, counter to this sentiment is a parallel discourse, founded in an antiquated, yet deep-rooted, patriarchal mindset that contributes to legal impunity in cases of gender based violence, and echoed by Government officials in the wake of the Motorway gang-rape. The incident serves to lay bare gaping holes in civil society, government and legislation that bar access to justice for half of Pakistan’s citizens based on their gender, in addition to various other facets of social life.
Pakistan has a 2% – 5% conviction rate in cases of rape (Benazir Jatoi, Naya Daur: Rape its Legal, Psychological & Societal Implications). A woman who has been raped experiences barriers to justice along every step of the justice process. The state’s default tendency to victim-blame coupled with disillusionment with the criminal justice system prevents women from reporting cases. When a woman does report an incident, she is encouraged by the police to compromise and settle the matter without involving the courts. Oftentimes, the case is not registered by the police, and if it is then the report does not actually state that it is an incidence of rape. There is no accountability for insensitive questioning in the courts if the case makes it that far. Every step of the way, the victim faces a push to settle and compromise, instead of receiving justice.
Additionally, the medico-legal system is weak: there are only six medico- legal officers in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city. Upon registering the case, the police require the victim’s family to arrange a medico-legal officer, which can take days due to a shortage in personnel. As part of the medico-legal protocol, the archaic Two Finger Test (TFT) is conducted to assess a victim’s virginity prior to the incidence of rape. The TFT is deemed by WHO as an inhumane and outdated remnant of the colonial era. While it has been abolished in India and Bangladesh, it continues to be used in Pakistan.
Progress towards justice for rape survivors as well as a reduction in the incidence of rape is not simply limited towards fixing the legal system. As the Motorway incident reflects, there needs to be a concerted push towards gender sensitization in society as whole, as well as within the family structure, law enforcement, medical and legal systems. The following policy recommendations may be adopted:
1. Gender sensitization needs to be inculcated in the population from the most basic level. As a start, this would require acknowledgement on behalf of the State that Pakistan suffers from a lack of gender-sensitization. At a more practical level, gender-sensitization awareness should be taught within the education system. At a time when the Single National Curriculum is proposing inclusion of a greater influence of Islamic studies in the curriculum, it should also include gender-sensitization in this effort. The curriculum as well as teacher training courses must include the inclusivity of women in the public sphere. Textbooks should highlight the contributions of strong historic as well as modern female figures. The Single National Curriculum needs a thorough analysis from this lens.
2. A higher level of accountability for members of the police force and judiciary involved in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of cases of gender-based violence.
3. The quota for female police officers must be increased and strictly enforced within the police force across Provinces. This would go some way in ensuring more rape cases being reported and to counter the misogynistic ‘compromise culture’ in reporting.
4. Abolishment of the two-finger test from the Medico-Legal Certificate protocol.
5. Creation of compulsory gender-sensitization training for the police force and judicial officers.
6. Media regulations that discourage the airing of content that perpetuates the culture of misogyny.
PILAP’S WORK ON RELEVANT RTIs
PILAP condemns all instances of violence against women and calls upon the Government authorities, both Federal and Provincial to hold accountable those officials who do not fulfill their public duties. On the specific issue of the Motorway gang-rape incident, PILAP has requested information from the Punjab Home Department and the IGP Punjab under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013. We have asked about measures taken to ensure that members of the police force receive gender-sensitization training in order to effectively deal with cases of violence towards women, and the proposed measures for curbing similar heinous incidents that attack women, children and other vulnerable members of society. We also ask about the reasons as to why no member of the Punjab Police came to the help and rescue of the victim and her children, as well as actions taken against Lahore CCPO for issuing statements that are counter to the duties of his office. Additionally, PILAP submitted an RTI to the Ministry of Communications asking why the particular stretch of the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway was unpoliced at the time of the unfortunate incident and the reason for insufficient Motorway Police and other Government personnel being available for the protection and safety of road users, why police assistance was not forthcoming for the victim and her children, and the measures proposed to be taken by the Ministry to ensure that Motorway Police is available to all road users at all times in order to effectively police the area.