MULTAN: A Panchayat, or village council, in an impoverished southern district of Punjab ordered a man earlier this month to rape a teenage girl in revenge for the earlier rape of his sister, police said on Wednesday. The incident occurred in the Rajpur area of Muzaffarabad.
“The Panchayat had ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl as punishment, as her brother had raped a 12-year-old,” police official Allah Baksh told AFP.
Twelve members of the Panchayat – including the man who presided over the meeting, or Sarpanch – have been arrested so far, police told The Express Tribune, adding that a manhunt had been launched for the remaining members of the Panchayat who fled after the incident.
The manhunt was started after two cases were registered against the members of the Panchayat at a police station inside the Violence Against Women Centre (VAWC) in Multan, the first such centre set up under a new provincial law passed designed to enhance protections for women that was passed last year.
The Protection of Women Against Violence Act-2016 criminalises all forms of violence against women, including domestic, psychological and sexual violence, and established a toll-free abuse reporting hotline.
It also mandated the establishment of shelters such as the one where the rapes in Multan were reported. The maximum punishment for rape under the law is the death penalty. Alternately, convicts may face imprisonment of up to 25 years.
“It was not a formal Panchayat, like has happened in the past,” police official Allah Baksh said. “It was just a gathering of uncles and aunts [of the first victim] from that village, in the same area.”
On July 16, a 12-year-old girl was raped while working in the family fields just south of Multan, according to one of the FIRs. “My daughter [F*] was cutting grass in the fields on July 16, around 2pm in the afternoon when … she was covered in a cloth [by her attackers] and forcibly raped,” her mother told the police.
Following that sexual assault, members of the victim’s family gathered together and resolved to rape a member of the alleged attacker’s family in revenge, SHO Malik Rashid said.
“On the night of July 18, about 2am I was sleeping with my children in my house when [U*] my 16-year-old daughter was taken away [by three men],” said the second victim’s mother in the FIR.
The second victim is the sister of the alleged attacker in the first rape, said Rashid.
“We implored the culprits to leave my daughter alone, but [they] threatened us that if anyone came forward they would be killed,” said the second victim’s mother.
This is not the first incident of its kind in Punjab.
Several similar incidents cases have been reported in the media while most remain unreported due to social stigma associated with such cases.
A Jirga was involved in one of South Asia’s most infamous cases of sexual violence against women when, in 2002, it ordered the gang rape of a woman called Mukhtaran Mai after her brother was falsely accused of rape.
Mukhtaran made the unusual decision to defy her rapists and take them to court. Her attackers walked free but she went on to become a high-profile women’s rights activist. Her story inspired an opera, ‘Thumbprint’, which opened in New York in 2014 and premiered in Los Angeles last month.
Panchayats or jirgas are a traditional means of settling disputes in the country’s rural areas, where courts and lawyers are not always accessible or trusted. Such councils do not, however, hold any legal standing.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, taking notice of the latest incident, ordered an inquiry.