War Against Rape
Breaking the silence on sexual abuse in Pakistan
You are only three years old, yet you have a fractured leg, a false eye and the sight of a man with a beard traumatises you and gives you panic attacks. You will live the rest of your life with the prospects of never getting married or starting your own family due to your severely damaged uterus leaving you unable to conceive children.
This is the case of Mariam.
Mariam was only three years old when she was sexually abused by her close family relative, Kamran. She was taken from her home and kept at her brother-in-law Kamran’s house who was a respected religious man in the community. She was kept in the house and was continuously sexually abused by Kamran who also pushed her down a hill and gouged out one of her eyes with a pair of scissors.
In the judgement, the court found there was not enough evidence to accuse Kamran of being guilty and the matter was settled out by monetary compensation of 25,000rupees which is equivalent to only $250USD.
It is cases like these that the Non-Governmental-Organisation War Against Rape (WAR) helps in Karachi in Pakistan.
Located conveniently right across from my apartment I was eager to start work the morning after I landed in Karachi. I arrived, exhausted, hot, hungry, yet excited to start working on this project and meeting the team inside who greeted me with welcoming smiles and AC!
We arrive in the office and sit down to a collection of newspapers, reviewing the reported articles relating to sexual abuse; “Four women raped in Khairpur to protest in Karachi”; “Woman gang-raped in Multan”; “Trainee nurse raped, burnt to death”; “Three minor boys raped”; ”Rape, kidnap case record missing, court told”; “Man held for raping step-daughter”; “18 month old girl assaulted”; “University lecturer gang-raped”; “Woman gang raped, hanged from tree in Layyah”; “Three cops face ire over rape victim’s suicide”; “Five year old raped by candy vendor.”
Our fingertips turned black from the ink of the pages as our hearts turned cold from the articles. Most of the articles did not make the headlines, they were merely a small article overshadowed by the large advertisements beside them.
It is a small work space filled with people who are passionate about what they are doing. Across the walls are posters encouraging women to “raise your voice against sexual abuse.” There is a chorus of keyboards being put to work and the gentle hum of overhead fans and AC keeping people happy.
War Against Rape (WAR) started in 1989 as a pressure group determined to promote the breaking of silence against rape and sexual violence. It is based in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, in a society where robberies and violence are reported to the police, but not many cases of sexual abuse. The silence on sexual violence is manifested by fear. It is the least officially reported form of abuse, yet there are still thousands of cases each year.
Sexual assault, although it is similar to all other crimes against humanity, is the only crime where the victim is thought to be responsible for the crimes against them. This suffocates the victims and forces them to fight against their self, their family and their society leading them to not want to report the incident for fear of being blamed. It’s not just the victim that is shamed in the society, the families often are ostracised in the community and sometimes have to relocate to different homes due to pressure. Sexual violence remains an issue of deep shame for women and their families.
In some areas of Pakistan women are treated as a man’s personal property and rape is used as a force of power and as a means of revenge to settle scores against men. In Pakistan more than half the rape cases remain unreported, unaccounted and un-prosecuted. Women in this society remain dependent on the male economically and emotionally and it is deeply entrenched in the fabric of cultural, socio-economic and political power relationships.
The first step for actually reporting your case as a victim, is a difficult task. A lack of trust and cooperation with the police, fear of humility and inadequate support for the survivor are the factors that contribute to the lack of cases being reported. Even when a victim plucks up the courage to report a case they are faced with ridicule and harassment from the police. The police often don’t file the reports and instead blame the victimised survivors. People across all towns and socio-economic backgrounds of Karachi have apprehension and distrust with the criminal justice system, especially distrust in the police. It is a society were corruption is high and ‘who you know’ is of high importance.
Let’s put this into perspective. After rape you feel victimised, helpless, abused, alone and ashamed. For those who do decide to report the case they are faced with days of reporting and harassment. They have to undergo a medical examination which is to be conducted by a female, of which there are only 6 in the whole of Karachi. For the whole of the 22 million people living in Karachi, this takes hours and sometimes days.
There needs to be an FIR (First Incident Report) filed in the police office, where the police are not supportive of sexual abuse victims. The women reporting are tormented, ridiculed and harassed to withdraw their statements and reports. If the report does go through, which is not always the case, there are then months of court lengthy court delays, inconsistent evidence and often harmful threats from the accused or his party. Even when the victim returns home they face embarrassment and ridicule from neighbours and families often end up moving areas, making it hard for WAR to locate the victims. No wonder an estimated 90% of cases go under reported.
So what can be done to help? The main problem is the stigma surrounding cases of sexual abuse. It is a taboo subject that goes unreported in most cases. Even when reported it carries the weight of humiliation on the victim. There needs to be more education to prevent cases of sexual abuse and the issue needs to be more discussed to raise the taboo of this devastating issue. WAR is working hard to raise awareness of this issue, to educate people on how to report, they are providing free counselling services to victims and families as well as free legal services, like Mariam’s case.
This stigmatised issue in society cannot remain unnoticed and unreported. Something needs to be done to help these women.
You can check out WAR for yourself to see the work they are doing in Karachi war.org.pk
Hannah Sutton is currently in Pakistan, working with War Against Rape, a NGO focused on creating rape free societies.