A step in the right direction for Pakistan

By Sharif Salim

Supporters of a new anti-rape law aimed at reforming decades of traditional resistance to the crime are hoping the measures will help heal years of pain and struggle for survivors.

The legislation, passed on Wednesday, paves the way for the use of chemical castration as an alternative to prison sentences for rapists.

The bill creates a special corps of trained female police officers known as an anti-violence force to investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual assault. However, it does not remove the traditionally broad definition of rape as defined in the penal code.

It also gives police and prosecutors extra powers to question people under 30 about their sexual past, which is prohibited under current laws. The legislation now returns to President Asif Ali Zardari for his signature.

Supporters of the new legislation argue that such measures are the only way to combat the worst forms of violence and impunity against women in Pakistan.

“Abusers are often emboldened to treat women as objects and asexual beings since it is a crime that carries so little punishment in society,” said Farhatullah Babar, a prominent female member of the parliament who helped draft the legislation.

Tahira Abdullah, a psychologist and academic and the main organizer of the bill in parliament, said that despite the advances in legislation since it was first introduced in 2006, some of Pakistan’s most-trusted institutions and women’s rights organizations continue to face longstanding resistance to change.

“The women’s movement has come out strongly and has won victories such as establishing the women’s police cadet training in Islamabad,” she said. “But we still have the same resistance from ordinary men in society who will not give women the space to live their lives in a way that is normal.”

Abdullah was one of 10 “dead bodies” of abused women who have been tortured and murdered in recent years in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore. She said that such acts often have a particularly pronounced impact on women and girls who have been subjected to violence at a young age.

“It is imperative that these killings are not dismissed as accidental and some claim such killings are nothing more than personal disputes,” she said. “Those women whose wombs have been bulldozed by their husbands during ‘forceful’ adoptions have a much longer road to travel than others suffering from ‘murder’.”

Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was acquitted of blasphemy and freed from jail last November, received death threats from hardline Islamists and will remain under threat from those that consider her innocent until her death, according to Amnesty International.

Abdullah said there is currently no legislation to protect women against sexual violence in any form. She said that is one of the reasons such legislation has stalled in parliament for so long.

“‘I wanted to see a fair bill with this provision,’ says Babar. ‘Unless we ensure justice for victims we will not be able to preserve the next generation of girls.’ ”

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