Protesters chant slogans condemning the rape and murder of six-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur during a march in Karachi on January 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Akhtar Soomro

In response to prolonged mass protests against gender-based violence in the country – triggered by widely reported cases including the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl in 2018, and the gang rape of a woman on a highway outside Lahore in September last year – Pakistan’s federal cabinet issued stricter anti-rape legislation, the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Ordinance 2020 and the Penal Code (Amendment) Ordinance 2020, in late November. 

However, the decision to introduce these new ordinances has been greeted with mixed reactions in the country, with some women’s rights activists broadly welcoming the law, whereas others have criticized it on the basis that the punishments are too harsh and that perhaps the government was pressured to act quickly in order to quell the discontent about sex crimes.

This ambiguity therefore raises the question as to what implications the newly passed and toughened anti-rape law actually holds for the women of Pakistan.

The gender landscape of Pakistan

Like any other country in South Asia, Pakistan is a deeply patriarchal society where gender-based discriminatory practices begin even before the birth of a girl child and rigid cultural values subsequently keep these inequalities alive. But what sets it apart is the fact that in Pakistan, religious beliefs strongly support the functioning of patriarchy, which helps to reinforce traditional values and practices, especially those related to the subordination and marginalization of women.

Therefore, the historical trajectory of Pakistan is vivid, with numerous cases of sexual assaults against women and girls, harassment, rape, honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriages.

According to a report by the non-governmental organization White Ribbon Pakistan, nearly 47,034 women faced sexual violence, more than 15,000 cases of honor crimes were registered, more than 1,800 cases of domestic violence were reported and about 5,500 women were kidnapped between 2004 and 2016. 

All these issues remain a serious problem within the country, which is why Pakistan has been ranked as the sixth most dangerous place in the world for women and the second-worst in the world in terms of gender equality, securing 151st position among a total of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index as reported by the World Economic Forum. 

But in Pakistan, there exists even a bigger systemic problem of convicting sexual offenders, where the conviction rates are nowhere near the rate of sexual assaults that are being carried out against women.

In fact, just 2.5% of all reported cases ultimately result in convictions. And this discourages women from pursuing justice because of the fear of being shamed or persecuted by police or even by their own relatives in the largely conservative Pakistani society. In addition, this low conviction rate is responsible for fueling the widespread atrocities against women.

The new law and its repercussions

Nonetheless, to stem the rising cases of sexual violence against women in Pakistan, the government signed the new anti-rape ordinances, which are broad in scope and promote women’s roles in policing, ensuring protection for survivors and witnesses, and the creation of a national database of sex offenders.

In addition, the law will assist in the development of fast-track courts to try cases of sexual abuse against women and children, requiring all proceedings to be completed within four months. 

Given that prior to the introduction of these ordinances, cases of sexual assault against women in the country could drag on for years in the judicial system – largely because of faulty investigations and flawed laws – these new measures can be classified as significant changes to address criminal proceedings against those accused of gender-based crimes.

Moreover, a fixed time span of four months to undergo the process can potentially provide the victims of sexual violence a better chance at seeing justice done. 

Another factor is that a lack of adequate medical evidence has often been at the heart of acquittals in rape cases because the DNA of the victim was not collected for examination within 72 hours as required.

Moreover, despite the World Health Organization’s declaration that the two-finger test on rape survivors is unscientific and unreliable, besides being a grave violation of women’s fundamental rights, this virginity test has continued to be widely used in Pakistan to determine whether a rape has occurred.

The newly passed law, however, orders medical examination of rape survivors within six hours of a complaint being registered and prohibits the two-finger test during medico-legal examinations. Both these aspects are important not only to protect and uphold the correctness of medical findings but also to ensure that women’s rights, dignity and respect are maintained and sustained throughout the legal process. 

In terms of penalties, while gang rape is often punishable by death or life imprisonment, in Pakistan, the predominant practice of punishment for sex offenders until now was either a prison sentence of up to 25 years or the death penalty. However, these measures were often considered not harsh enough to curb crimes against women. 

Nonetheless, the new ordinances prescribe tougher penalties, such as capital punishment by hanging, increased jail terms and chemical castration.

Chemical castration

That is a process of injecting the sex offender with a drug that lowers his libido by manipulating testosterone levels. The premise behind the adoption of this controversial practice is that lowering an offender’s sexual drive will in turn decrease his urge to commit sexual abuse. 

However, there exists no evidence to support this argument. Besides, rape and sexual abuse are not about the libido alone. These forms of violence are about asserting dominance and power over another person.

Thus, to put it simply, if the goal is deterrence – either to prevent the sex offender from reoffending or to create fear in others who are considering similar crimes – the barbaric punishment by chemical castration does not have enough evidence to back up its efficacy.

Therefore, while these newly proposed measures might be considered exemplary punishments for rapists, in reality, chemical castration doesn’t accomplish what its advocates say it does and is instead, just another way to destroy the fabric of human rights, thereby doing little to prevent sexual violence against women.

As a matter of fact, in India – which is not only Pakistan’s neighbor but is also popularly known as the most dangerous country for women in the world – debates about introducing chemical castration for sexual offenders have been going on since 2011.

But a three-member committee led by Supreme Court Justice J S Verma rejected the use of this sort of punishment in a report released in 2013, stating that “we note that it would be unconstitutional and inconsistent with basic human-rights treaties for the state to expose any citizen without their consent to potentially dangerous medical side effects.” 

Perhaps the Pakistani government should have looked at India as an example and considered the fact that bringing in tougher punishments for sexual offenders cannot be a panacea to rectify or fix its flawed criminal justice system and neither can it serve as a tool to address the root causes of sexual violence against women. 

Conclusion

Therefore, in certain aspects, Pakistan’s new anti-rape ordinances are a step in the right direction to combat crimes against women with its aim to strengthen legal processes and improve medical examination procedures.

Yet its distinct and inordinate focus on stricter forms of punishment for sexual offenders deflects attention from the fact that authorities should actually focus on addressing as well reforming the causes of gender-based violence rather than further annihilating the human rights landscape.

Having said that, the real impact of the new anti-rape law on women in Pakistan remains to be seen.

Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar is a researcher at the Center for Internal and Regional Security, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets at @akankshakhullar.