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Pakistan Debates Tough Punishments For Rape, Child Sexual Abuse


Human right activists protest in Lahore on September 12 against the alleged gang rape of a woman in front of her children.

A series of recent high-profile rape and child sexual abuse cases in Pakistan has spurred a debate over how to curb the incidence of violent crimes that mostly target women and children.

As part of a government effort to punish and deter such crimes, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan last week called for the chemical castration and public hanging of rapists and child sexual abusers.

But human and child rights campaigners who oppose the death penalty are instead urging reforms in the police and judiciary and an increase in awareness campaigns for parents, children, and communities as the best approach to fighting and preventing sexual abuse.

Major countrywide protests followed the alleged gang rape of a woman in front of her children on one of the country’s major highways earlier this month. The incident rekindled the debate over how to handle the thousands of reported cases of rape and child sexual abuse in the Muslim country of 220 million -- and the countless cases that go unreported.

“Rapists and child molesters should be hanged publicly,” Khan told 92 HD News, a private TV channel, on September 14. "Murder is graded as first-degree, second-degree, or third-degree, and rape should also be graded this way. First-degree rapists should be castrated and completely incapacitated."

On September 16, Khan announced that his administration is preparing a three-tier draft bill that will include the registration of sex offenders, policing, and exemplary punishment. “[This is] to instill fear, so that when people try to ruin someone’s life, they should be aware of the consequences,” he told lawmakers.

“Convicting a sex offender is not an easy job due to the complicated process of presenting evidence and witnesses,” Khan said. “The legislation will contain guarantees to protect witnesses.” Khan’s comments were apparently aimed at placating the public outrage over recent incidents as scores of rape and sexual abuse cases have been reported in the media across Pakistan this month.

Public opinion leaders in the conservative country have called for strict punishments such as execution as a deterrent against sex crimes. Under current Pakistani law, rape is not punishable by death.

Human rights campaigners, however, oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it represents a serious violation of human rights. Uzma Noorani, co-chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told Voice Of America’s Urdu service that severe punishments do not affect crime rates.

“Such statements [about strict punishments] can cool down public anger, but it will not solve the issue,” she said. “In countries such as Pakistan where the criminal justice system faces a lot of problems, the death penalty cannot be granted.”

“We have seen cases where people were proved innocent after they were executed [for alleged crimes],” she added.

Under the Pakistan Penal Code, if proved guilty of rape by a court of law a person can be sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. Gang rape carries a death sentence or life imprisonment for each offender.

Sahil, an NGO working for child protection and against sexual abuse, echoes HRCP’s stance against the death penalty. It advocates reforming the judicial system and educating parents and children to protect themselves as a better alternative to executing offenders.

“We hanged a convicted rapist and murderer in Kasur [in eastern Punjab Province] two years ago, but nothing changed,” Sahil Executive Director Manizeh Bano told Radio Mashaal. “Instead of such punishments, groups involved in pedophilia need to be identified and the process of implementing the law needs to be effective.”

In the 2018 high-profile case Bano referenced, Muhammad Imran was sentenced to death amid tremendous public pressure for charges of pedophilia and killing eight children, including the rape and murder of 7-year-old Zainab Ansari. But his execution failed to affect the overall statistics.

“People’s trust and confidence in the judicial system need to be built,” Bano said. “If the law is upheld, people will understand that court proceedings lead to a result.”

Sahil reported 2,846 cases of child sexual abuse in Pakistan in 2019, with over half of the incidents occurring in mostly rural areas of Punjab. The year before, 3,832 cases were reported. According to War Against Rape (WAR), an NGO working to curb violence against women, nearly 1,000 cases of sexual assault were reported at three major hospitals in the southern seaport city of Karachi last year. Overall, the statistics about sexual abuse are patchy because many cases are not reported due to social taboos and fear of reprisal. The actual number of sexual crimes is thought to be much higher.

“The reported cases represent only the tip of the iceberg,” said Arshad Mahmood, a child rights campaigner in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. “The surge in numbers does not reveal the true extent of the problem, which is way bigger.” Over the past several years, he added, the reporting of cases has increased because of increased coverage in the press and on social media.

In March, Islamabad passed a law on the recovery of kidnapped children and the prevention of child abuse. The federal government as well as those of Pakistan’s four provinces have also adopted several more laws to protect children from abuse.

In many instances, however, these laws are not being enforced, according to Mahmood. “We have laws in each province and Child Protection Commissions, but the laws are not implemented,” he said.

He suggests that work needs to be done at the community level including educating and training children to identify harmful or dangerous situations and how to protect themselves.

“Parents also need to work on their awareness, too, so that children can speak up without fear,” he noted.

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