Put yourself in the shoes of an adolescent girl who has been brutally raped. You may be devastated, confused and angry and expect that your family and community will stand by you, protect you and advocate for your rights. You have a right to expect that your country’s legal system will provide swift justice for you that is commensurate with the seriousness of the crime.
The likelihood is that while taking a case through the legal system you will be faced with almost insurmountable barriers. You will have to face stigma and it is possible that your family will cover up the matter to protect its ‘honour’ in the community, sacrificing your rights as well as your psychological, emotional and physical well-being.
If you are lucky enough to have a family who wants justice for you and takes you to your local police station, you will be repeatedly questioned by police officers who will be sceptical and condescending, cast aspersions on your character, question your motives and perhaps even try to convince you not to file a complaint.
Next is the encounter with the medico-legal officer who will conduct a physical examination and prepare the medical report to be used in the trial. You will find it difficult to get an appointment with a woman medico-legal officer (WMLO), as they are few in number and if you are examined by one, the WMLO may bring her own biases into her reporting, irreparably damaging your case which is dependent on the medico-legal report.
Given the level of bribery and corruption in the court system, there is a strong chance your prosecutor may be influenced by the perpetrator who may be able to buy his freedom. If you are lucky enough to get an honest prosecutor, or better yet, a committed and competent lawyer fighting your case, the battle is still not won.
During court hearings you may be further victimised, as you are asked humiliating and irrelevant questions about your behaviour, dress and motivations in bringing the case, by magistrates and judges who will most likely mirror the police in terms of not believing your complaint, calling your character into question or marginalising the seriousness of the violence committed against you.
During the course of the trial you and your family members will be expected to appear diligently, week after week, with no regard to your circumstances. The perpetrator may drag the proceedings on for months as there are no time limits within which your case must be concluded. There will be no arrangements in court for your testifying out of sight of the perpetrator, either through the use of in-camera procedures or screens, and so you will have to relive the trauma of your rape as you tell your story while facing your victimiser.
This is the reality for rape victims in Pakistan. It is not surprising to see, therefore, that many of them choose to spare themselves the excruciating process of taking a case to court by either not reporting or withdrawing their case.
Making the legal process more victim-centred is not a difficult or expensive task, so the lack of initiative shown in this regard is indicative of apathy towards the rights and sensibilities of survivors of sexual violence. On a positive note, while at a workshop on sexual violence in Lahore, in December 2010, held jointly by Equality Now and War Against Rape, it was heartening to see the level of commitment shown by lawyers and NGOs in Pakistan who proposed practical recommendations for reform of the legal system, improved services for victims and prevention of sexual violence. As groups working on women’s rights continue to clamour for the rights of victims, the government needs to prioritise the issue and make access to justice, currently a distant and often unattainable dream, a reality for victims.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2011.
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