LAHORE, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Growing up was never going to be easy for Sharee Komal.
Born into an impoverished family living in a hut made of odd pieces of stained cloth tied to pieces of wood next to a decrepit cemetery in a poor Lahore neighbourhood, her life’s prescription was to be hard work, few amenities, and little-to-no gratitude in Pakistan’s male-dominated society.
As desperate as her situation was, life tooka horrifying turn for the cherub-faced 7-year-old the morning of May 29 when a neighbor did the unthinkable.
“He promised me toys and some chocolate,” Sharee whispers of the man she accuses, 23-year-old Ali Bahader. “But when I saw he was taking me to a dark little house, I began screaming and he started hitting me in the face . . . then he really started hurting me.”
Almost eight hours later, Sharee’s distraught mother and police officers found her lying unconscious in the cemetery bruised and bleeding from the assault. The police officers–in a rare show of understanding in Pakistan–stopped Sharee’s mother, Parveen Barkat, from bathing the little girl and rushed her to a Lahore hospital where tests confirmed their fears.
Sharee had been raped.
Underreported Crime Afflicts Many Children
For Pakistani human rights campaigners Sharee’s case came as little surprise in a country where rape reporting is weak and sexual assaults on children are a major part of the problem.
Eight rapes are reported every day in Pakistan, a country of 147 million. Human rights activists estimate that for every rape case reported, there are two more that are never brought to the authorities’ attention.
The arguments against reporting a rape in Pakistan–where family matters are largely kept behind closed doors and rape is an instant assault on the honor of a family–are powerful. Rape victims who register cases are often ostracized by friends and neighbors while the general public, even in cases publicized by the local media, remains largely apathetic.
Perpetrators and their families often browbeat rape victims for a “compromise” or “forgiveness,” threatening further violence should the case be pursued. Law enforcement officials remain largely unsympathetic to the crime of rape often refusing to file charges.
If the victim decides to press ahead, the experience can be discouraging. Recently, for instance, the father of an 8-year-old boy reportedly raped by a local maulvi (religious preacher) in Lahore’s suburbs withdrew the official complaint after neighbors and acquaintances spent weeks publicly condemning him for attempting to sully the reputation of a holy man.
Of the eight official rape cases reported each day, five are minors. Young boys and pubescent males also fall victim to sexual abuse by elders, at least two every day. Of the reported rapes–of both girls and boys–two-thirds are gang rapes.
Yet each year there are only a handful of convictions against rapists.
In a rare show of defiance in a society that often discourages victims from speaking out against rape, Sharee’s mother, Barkat, decided to go public with the case. With the help of local nongovernmental organizations, she called a press conference in early June to ask Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to personally ensure Bahader is punished for his actions.
Bahader says he did not commit the crime. Bahader is currently in police custody awaiting trial or bail; Barkat feels nothing less than life in prison would be suitable punishment.
“People in the neighborhood have called me a liar, spit at me, and thrown things,” says Barkat. “We’re terrified that there is nothing to keep someone from attacking all of us, but we’re talking about the life of my child and I want justice.”
For aid organizations working on the rape issue, determined parents like Barkat are few and far between. And even in the most determined cases, they say that settling out of court almost always prevails over Pakistan’s achingly slow judicial system.
Cases often drag on for years during which time societal pressure mounts on the victim’s family to cease airing their dirty laundry in public.
Risk of Facing Hudood Ordinance
Should the victim be unable to produce four male witnesses to testify on their behalf, she is likely to end up being charged under Pakistan’s notorious Hudood Ordinance, which criminalizes extra- or pre-marital sex, and carries a punishment of death. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 50 percent of the women who report rapes end up being charged under the controversial law.
“If you take 75 cases, four will end up in court, and maybe one will end up with a conviction,” says Fatima Ambreen, coordinator of War Against Rape–or WAR–a Pakistani aid organization that works specifically on the rape issue and is aiding Barkat with Sharee’s case. The group is providing free legal advice and counseling for Sharee and her family.
Set up in the early 1990s by a group of 15 concerned citizens, WAR now has offices in most major Pakistani cities and has dozens of qualified professionals–doctors, nurses, lawyers, and journalists–lending their skills to combat the prevalence of rape through seminars and public awareness campaigns. The group also pushes for more government acknowledgement of the problem and better support to victims.
Besides providing rape victims with physical and mental treatment and assisting with legal representation, WAR runs workshops and public awareness campaigns across the country.
“People just have a tendency to close their eyes to something that desperately needs to be talked about,” Ambreen says. “We have to break the taboo, end the silence.”
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.
For more information:
IRINnews.org –Pakistan: Anti-rape NGO Struggles to be Heard:
Women’s eNews–In Pakistan, Those Who Cry Rape Face Jail:
Women’s eNews–Pakistan’s Acid-Attack Victims Press for Justice: