A holistic national action plan is needed on an urgent basis to address widespread violence against women and children
The motorway gang rape incident pierced the entire country like a bullet. An entire week of prime time talk shows following the incident was dedicated to discussing the crime and investigating evident negligence in the case.
For those who were more accustomed to following similar news stories, the incident was another horrific reminder that the country is astonishingly unsafe for women. The more casual consumers of news were also forced to pay attention. Some started acknowledging that the problem runs deeper than one instance of a crime.
Then there were those convinced that Pakistan is a safe country which treats its women better than the West. Even they had trouble saying so in response to a woman being dragged and assaulted in front of her children. There were exceptions of course; victim blaming is still rampant. However, it would not be wrong to say that the overwhelming public response was that of anger and sorrow over what had happened.
It is important to recognise that this incident should not be viewed in isolation. There are deep-seated cultural and institutional reasons for why we see a lot more rape news stories than here are convictions. Here, the focus is on the institutional aspect. It should be noted that the societal attitudes towards victims are linked to administration of justice in cases of rape. A feminist political analysis in the context of a patriarchal society is indispensable, but beyond the scope of this particular piece of writing which attempts to focus on specific problems related to the inadequacies of the justice system.
In his book, Governing the Ungovernable, Dr Ishrat Husain discusses the institutional problems associated with the justice system of Pakistan at great length. He also proposes solutions to some issues based on the context of governance in Pakistan. In light of his research and writing, one can gain useful insights about how rape cases are dealt with.
Any instance where rule of law is violated requires an immediate response from two major institutions: the police and the prosecution.
In order for a case to be pursued, an FIR needs to be filed and evidence needs to be secured. For this, the role of police is vital in early stages. The first thing to note here is that for most cases of rape, an FIR is not filed on account of the shame associated with the crime, as well as lack of expectation of justice.
A number of cases that are filed and pursued for a while are later dropped. This is either because the victim is intimidated (sometimes with the complicity of police) or because an informal settlement is reached despite rape being a non-compoundable offence. In cases that are actively pursued, evidence is not always secured properly. As a result the courts end up giving the accused the benefit of the doubt.
It is important to recognise that this incident should not be viewed in isolation. There are deep-seated cultural and institutional reasons why we see a lot more rape news stories than convictions.
Besides technical issues, police collusion is a major hurdle to rape cases making it to the trial. There are endless complaints of delayed investigation, manipulation of evidence and intimidation of victims. The incompetence of the police service is often matched by an equally incompetent prosecution. This results in dismal outcomes for victims/survivors of rape.
The prosecution service is weak, to say the least. It has been noted that the staff is underpaid and unmotivated - there is little incentive to put in more effort than absolutely necessary.
In order for a case to go to trial, a functional working relationship is needed between the prosecutor and the investigator. If the initial preparation is not done in collaboration, it leads to police blaming the prosecution for a weak presentation while prosecutors blame the subpar investigation process and weak evidence. The blame almost always lies with both groups.
The tendency to shift the blame is visible everywhere. The courts blame police for subpar investigation, the police blame prosecutors for not arguing the case well n and the prosecutors blame the courts for granting unnecessary adjournments. None of the institutions is willing to accept its own faults. This, combined with lack of political will, results in a justice system which is consistent only in terms of how inconsistent it is. The trust deficit continues to grow.
A corrupt police service and incompetent prosecutors produce a shockingly low conviction rate.
Impassioned calls to hang or castrate the rapist might seem to make sense to some people given the horrific nature of the crime under-discussion. But how will we hang any rapists when they are not even being convicted? How can we hang the rapists when prosecutors share the same opinion as the Lahore CCPO?
Extreme punishments are often looked up to as swift solutions to problems that fail to make sense to us. The fact of the matter is that hanging one individual will do nothing to impact the institutional problems which lead to subpar administration of justice.
A holistic national action plan is needed on an urgent basis to address widespread violence against women and children. This requires effort beyond the empty rhetoric that PM and his ministers have been giving on TV and Twitter while the CCPO retains his position.
The writer is an urban policy enthusiast and a student of politics and economics at LUMS. She tweets @Shehreen