FEW would argue that Pakistan’s societal realities are such that render it a deeply hostile place for women and children in particular.
Nevertheless, slow though it may be, in terms of legislation some progress is being made to address this concern. Forward-looking legislation is, in fact, a first step towards changing norms and reducing rights violations.
In recent years, several laws have been passed and procedures laid down that offer extra and targeted protections, such as those against honour killings and underage marriage.
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Others bring into the ambit of the law those transgressions that otherwise tend to remain in the shadows, such as sexual harassment at the workplace. And last week, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice approved the Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill of 2014.
This is meant to amend sections of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, the Code of Criminal Procedures, 1898, and the Qanoon-i-Shahadat Order, 1984 in order to improve the chances of rape victims getting justice.
The bill may be a slim document, but the changes it envisages are significant. A clause is inserted, for example, in Section 218 of the PPC making defective investigations worthy of punishment, and in Section 344 of the CrPc requiring that once a rape case has been taken cognisance of by a court, it shall be decided upon within six months.
The new bill gives added protections to victims. For instance, disclosing through the media or via some other route the identity of a victim without the latter’s consent would be deemed an offence. It also provides for in-camera trials.
An insertion in the Qanoon-i-Shahadat law says that if the question of consent comes up and the victim claims that she did not, “the court shall presume that she did not consent”.
Article 151, clause 4 of the same legislation currently reads: “When a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character.” The new bill requires that this clause be omitted.
These are all welcome changes, and the bill deserves smooth passage through the Senate and the National Assembly.
Past this will come the real challenge: that of ensuring implementation. Too often, notwithstanding the laws on the books, victims of various crimes, and in particular of rape, find the path to justice impeded by entrenched prejudice and a lack of sympathy at even the level of the police station.
In addition to the laws, the whole culture surrounding rape needs to change.