LAST September in Pakistan, a woman driving on the motorway near Lahore ran out of fuel. While waiting for help, two men approached and broke into her locked car. They forced the woman out and raped her while her children watched.
The attack garnered national attention and pushed Prime Minister Imran Khan to call for new anti-rape measures. Notably, he called for chemical castration for sex offenders. Three months later, Khan and his cabinet approved new laws aiming to speed up convictions and toughen sex crime sentences.
Special fast-track courts will hear cases and be expected to reach a verdict within four months. A national sex offenders register will be introduced to protect victims. Chemical castration will be imposed on serial offenders.
But this punishment violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Article 7 states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.”
The measure, despite being a hard message for perpetrators, is a human rights minefield.
In addition, chemical castration may not be as effective as Khan anticipates.
“Sexual violence is rarely about sexual drive,” Marta Hurtado, a spokesperson of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, told Redaction Politics.
“It is a violent, aggressive and hostile act used to dominate, degrade, and humiliate victims. So, chemical castration would not solve the problem of serial rapists.”
Hurtado added statistics show chemical castration has limited effectiveness in preventing recidivism amongst violent sex offenders.
Dr Amina Yaqin, a reader in Urdu and postcolonial studies at SOAS University of London, told Redaction Politics that socioeconomic factors also play a pivotal part in Pakistan’s ongoing sexual violence crisis.
“While chemical castration sends out a strong message about change and making society safer for women, there is a need to understand how familial power can contribute to oppression and work in tandem with caste and class hierarchies that normalise sexual violence across Pakistan,” she said.
“The power dynamics of families will vary across different class groups and calling out sexual violence has very serious consequences. It happens inside homes as much as, if not more than, outside and families reinforce power structures in which the perpetrators of sexual violence remain unpunished.”
War Against Rape (WAR), a non-governmental organisation based in Karachi, estimates over 82 per cent of Pakistan’s rapists are family members. Thus, women who report rape are likely to face severe domestic punishment.
At worst, women speaking out against a family member could be killed. Pakistan has the highest number of honour killings per capita of any country in the world. Approximately one-fifth of the world’s honour killings are performed there.
When women do speak, they are pushed to take responsibility. The lead police investigator for the motorway gang-rape told media the victim should have known better than to travel alone at night. He argued she should have taken a safer route and had enough fuel for the journey.
The fear to report thrives under an honour code dedicated to preserving women’s chastity, placing the onus on women to not be raped rather than on men to not rape.
Underreporting of sex crimes means there is little reliable data. In an interview with Hard Talk Pakistan in September last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke on this.
Khan told Moeed Pirzada: “It’s under-reported. People do not report it due to being scared or ashamed. Women are ashamed, no one wants to tell.”
According to Hurtado, Pakistan must break the cycle of punitive action taken against women who speak out to truly fight the country’s sexual violence crisis. “Survivors need better access to a variety of services and legal assistance, along with protection measures to mitigate their risks of reprisals and stigmatisation,” she said.
Dr Yaqin added to reduce sexual violence, Pakistan needs to “invest in building self-esteem, confidence and trust in girls from an early age.”
Khan and his cabinet approved the new anti-rape laws in November 2020 and President Arif Alvi signed them into law on December 15.
The government allows 120 days from signing for parliament to permanently pass the legislation. There is yet to be confirmation of permanence.
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