March Issue 2010
Fight to the Finish
The Women’s Protection Act 2006 was, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction in that rape was finally separated from zina and became an offence punishable under the Pakistan Penal Code instead of the Hudood Ordinance. Further, it stopped unproven cases of rape from being converted into those of fornication or adultery. But while the Act solved one of the many legal hurdles that lie in the way of a survivor seeking justice, many remain to be faced.
Newsline spoke to four rape/attempted rape survivors and their families and learnt that had it not been for War Against Rape (WAR), a Karachi-based NGO devoted to fighting against rape, which provided them legal, monetary and moral assistance, they would have given up. What was common to each of these families was that they had never been to a police station before to lodge an FIR, or seen the inside of a courtroom.
It was WAR that saw them through the rounds of court, helped them face the insults hurled at them and even took care of their food and shelter needs. And once the families got this support, they became determined to settle for nothing less than justice.
In three of these cases undertaken by WAR, the accused have been punished and given sentences, while one case is under trial.
Tania*, whose case is currently under trial, awaiting the statement of the investigation officer, was six years old at the time of the assault. A tenant who lived two floors above Tania’s took advantage of a power outage and attempted to rape her and brutally beat her in the process. Found unconscious in the apartment complex by her mother, the parents were devastated. The remaining part of the day was spent dealing with what had happened, and attending to the child. The next day, the father went to the police to lodge an FIR after Tania narrated the incident to her parents. However, despite a police officer looking into the matter, an FIR was not registered. Instead, some policemen actually assisted the culprit while he cleaned out his apartment and left with his belongings.
Rifat*, Tania’s mother, then got in touch with WAR herself after being directed to do so by her employers. Then project coordinator Nasreen Siddiqui joined the family at the hospital after which the organisation’s lawyers took on the case. Tania and her family have been fortunate enough not to be ostracised by society. Neighbours, extended family and teachers at the school Tania attends agree that the child and her family have been wronged.
That was not the case with Mariam* and her family who was seven years of age when a shopkeeper close to where she lived attempted to rape her. Her mother says, “People taunt us; nobody thinks that it is a child. Our own relatives left us. They said you’ve had this done. My mother-in-law still doesn’t meet us. She says I am responsible.” Although Nadeem, the accused, has been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years of rigorous imprisonment and subjected to a fine of Rs 50,000, life is still not easy for the family, who keep silent about the incident.
“When people hear of what happened with us, they tell us to clear out their residence; we don’t get a place on rent. People from the old neighbourhood know of the incident, but not the one we live in now. Our landlady also doesn’t know; I keep quiet, otherwise she too will ask us to vacate the place.”
To avoid being taunted, Shahnaz’s parents didn’t let on to family or friends what happened with their daughter. Shahnaz* was raped five years ago, when she was 14, by Hussain, a university student who lived in the same apartment complex as her. Hussain has been sentenced to 10 years of rigorous punishment and subjected to a fine of Rs 50,000. But the road to recovery is a long one. (See box “The biggest challenge is to maintain your self-respect”).
There is always the possibility and fear of being called back to court if an appeal is filed by the accused. In Mariam’s case, Nadeem did file an appeal but it was dismissed and the previous judgment was upheld. AsNewsline was going into print, we learnt that Hussain, too, has filed an appeal, the hearing for which has yet to be scheduled, requiring Shahnaz’s family to go back to court — this time, the High Court.
The final venue of appeal for any case is the Supreme Court. Iqbal*, Shahnaz’s father, is ready to take it to the upper court if required. Hamza, Naseema Lubano’s father, whose case reached WAR after a series of transfers, expresses similar sentiments as Iqbal. Theirs was a partial victory: under trial since February 2007, on January 23, 2010, the court sentenced one of the seven accused of gang rape to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000 and acquitted six others for lack of evidence.
“We have filed an appeal in the High Court against those who have been let off. If we do not get justice here, we will go to the Supreme Court. If the criminals are not punished, we will go to the chief justice and appeal to him to take action, and if justice is denied again then we will set fire to ourselves — we can and will do that,” says Hamza.
Lawyers at WAR laud the confidence of Tania and her presence of mind when testifying in court and Naseema’s bravery for standing in front of all the accused and identifying and testifying against them. The parents credit this to the counselling of their daughters’ at WAR. Even though the girls were kept away from the courts unless their presence was absolutely necessary, the psychological impact on them has been tremendous.
Apart from the criminal act itself, they have had to deal with constant threats from the culprits while the case was under trial, speak on several occasions about what happened to them to family, media, medical practitioners, police officers, lawyers, judges and faced the immense pressure of testifying against the accused, face-to-face, reliving the ordeal each time.
Mariam would cry after returning from court, her mother says. “The day she testified before the judge, Tania started running a fever,” says Rifat. Both the younger girls are recovering and are back at school. But the psychological impact manifests itself in a variety of ways.
“Initially, Mariam was even scared of her father. She wouldn’t go to him or to any other male relative. Even today, she won’t stay at home if I am not there. I tell her ‘Your father is home with the children. Stay back.’ But she refuses since she is still scared,” says Mariam’s mother. According to Rifat, “Tania has become very rebellious; she does only what she wants to, and not what she is told to. She was very good at studies — her writing used to be better than her siblings’ — but now we keep receiving complaints from the teacher saying she doesn’t work, doesn’t respond, doesn’t answer her roll call.” When asked, Tania herself replied she didn’t enjoy school and didn’t talk much.
Shahnaz had to discontinue her education as at the time the case was still under trial and Hussain was on the loose, so her parents were fearful of her being picked up. But a rebellious mind is what her parents also report. Naseema perhaps has been the worst affected, physically and mentally. She has been undergoing constant psychiatric treatment and is physically very weak. When she was visited in her home for this article, she was bed-ridden with fever, which she had had for the past eight days, and was constantly refusing to eat or drink anything. According to her father, it is when she has Ensure, a dietary supplement, that she is able to sit up. But when there is nobody funding it — as it costs Rs 800 — then she is back in bed.
And while Tania and Mariam don’t have much time on their hands to do much else and are busy with school, madrassa, tuition and their home routine, Shahnaz’s and Naseema’s movement outside their homes is restricted — Shahnaz doesn’t go anywhere unless her father accompanies her and being the sole breadwinner he is unable to do so always, while Naseema and her family still face death threats.
Running the house becomes a difficult task, especially when one is unemployed due to the time and physical presence required for a court case. But the cost of taking cases such as these to court is more than just financial.
Taking young children along to the court and exposing them to such environments, enduring shame and living secret lives or under the constant pressure of being apprehended by the criminals, also takes it tolls on the entire family. Mariam’s parents, for example, have both developed medical conditions as a result of the stress. And while the short-term concern for these families is justice and punishment for the criminals, marriage prospects for their daughters are a primary concern for all of them.
They have all come a long way, faced many difficulties, and they require support in different ways to go on living and fighting. The survivors know what it is like to be promised aid by government officials and to never hear from them again, to be the media darlings and then be dumped when they aren’t ‘newsworthy’ anymore. Theirs is a daily struggle and they have the strength, but are looking for some respite to keep them going.
* Some names have been changed to protect the victims and their families.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.