On Saturday, a 14-year-old domestic help was allegedly raped and murdered in Marghazar Colony here. While the police sprung into action and arrested a suspect, this is one of the many sex crimes committed daily out of which just a small number goes reported.
The lack of reporting of such cases can be linked to several social and economic factors: the stigma of a sex crime, first responders – police – resorting to victim shaming, cost of litigation, relation with the rapist and social pressure to list a few.
However, this practice appears to be changing. Now, more than ever, the aggrieved are coming forward to report their ordeal and seek justice. Lawyers, the police and rights defenders attribute this to the increased media and civil society attention to sex crimes, awareness among the masses and promulgation of laws.
Advocate Noor Ejaz Chaudhry feels the reporting of sexual harassment cases has increased since the establishment of inquiry committees at some workplaces. “Even after the workplace harassment law was enacted, it wasn’t implemented much until the committees were set up. Women are also more aware of their rights now, they know they can complain and that harassment is actionable. This creates a trickledown effect, yet the Meesha Shafi case, regrettably, showed that only conventional employees can file complaints under the law; that’s just hardly 10pc of the population, as most of the labour force comprises informal field workers, freelancers, newer avenues etc. If none of these are covered that means the law has failed over 90pc of the labour force.”
While Sarah Sheraz, the Aurat Foundation Punjab resident director, sees a combination of the civil society’s actions, legislation and media coverage behind the increased reporting of sex crimes to the authorities that gives the women confidence that they would get justice.
“Civil society has played a major role; they talk about the cases openly and create mass awareness. Plus, there has been a lot of legislation in the last three decades no matter how effective it’s been, but just making of laws is encouraging as it gives women the confidence that there will be redressal.”
But the law and media may be limited in their roles when it comes to helping the under-privileged, who are either not aware of the recourse or lack resources to pursue such cases. Ms Sheraz agrees that while media outreach to under-privileged areas may restricted, the civil society works on grassroots and now women are much more aware. “It’s not easy to brush such issues under the carpet anymore,” she adds.
Social media has also helped not just to create awareness about legal options, but also to know about one’s rights and what kind of behaviour is unacceptable. Advocate Chaudhry says social media is more accessible than the law. “In a lot of situations when women have been turned away by law enforcers, social media has led them to believe they have some recourse and remedy after which officials take a complainant seriously. This kind of mix is needed to deal with sexual harassment cases.”
According to the Punjab Police, 2,292 rape and 104 gang-rape cases were registered across the province from Jan 1 to July 31 this year. However, it is strongly believed this data may just represent a fraction of the actual number of the crimes.
As per Lahore police statistics, 630 rape and attempted rape cases were registered from Jan 1 till date. Out of these, 117 cases involved boys. A senior police official claimed 62pc of these cases had been challaned and the culprits traced and arrested.
While there may be awareness, the reason many sex crimes go unreported is also the insensitivity of the police, who resort to victim shaming. Advocate Chaudhry laments police are often found desensitised to the pleas of women complainants and ask provocative questions. “There’s victim shaming at police stations that the women asked for it and that since they belong to the lower class they deserve to be harassed. Such is the mindset in backward areas and it’s difficult for women to get justice in these circumstances. Police need to be sensitised, listen to women and not ask leading questions.”
Even when a case reaches a trial, the lacunae in the legal system stretch it to months, which discourages many complainants to back out. “Even high-profile cases like Noor Mukaddam’s aren’t progressing fast. Despite the awareness, hashtags and fear among people, new cases are reported daily. So there are lots of lacunae in resolution of such cases.”
However, she stresses the media, civil society and all stakeholders must keep raising their voices, make continuous efforts and follow up. “If just a few cases reach conclusions, it’ll give hope to a lot of people.”
Senior Superintendent of Police (Investigation) Mansoor Aman credits media reporting and police action with encouraging victims to seek justice. “If there’s a hue and cry, as was in the Zainab and motorway cases, it encourages women to come forward and report a crime.”
Preventing such crimes, the officer believes, is a collective responsibility of society and all stakeholders, from upbringing of a person at home, schools to non-governmental organisations and the government.
“Such cases are always a top priority for the police and around 80pc of them are reported by underprivileged women. Also, all child abuse and rape cases are dealt with by a lady officer at the gender-based violence cells established one each in the six police divisions in Lahore. Such a case registered in a police station is sent to the respective division’s cell and by year end, no such case is left untraced,” Mr Aman claims.