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Home > Women’s Rights > Rape, Justice and Compromise

Rape, Justice and Compromise

A tale of two families

by Beena Sarwar, 6 October 2008

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The News on sunday, 5 October 2008

Displacement and its related matters aside, the real issue remains the rape of the girls, and the fact that they are not getting justice. If they and their families were to agree to a ’compromise’, their troubles would be over in a flash

"The most difficult thing is to ask for something," said Tasleem, sudden tears in her eyes overshadowing her determined cheerfulness.

On Jan 10, 2007, local thugs gang raped Tasleem’s sister-in-law Kainat Soomro, then 13 years old, in village Meharh in Dadu district. In an unrelated case shortly afterwards, a landlord and his henchmen gang raped young Naseema Lubano, around 16, in village Ubaro, district Ghotki on Jan 27, 2007. The girls’ families had to flee their homes after managing to get criminal cases filed against the influential assailants. Later, Chief Justice Sindh High Court Sabihuddin Ahmed ordered the cases transferred to Karachi where hearings could be held in relative safety.

These cases are not unique. Rape takes place with alarming regularity in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) recorded 755 cases of sexual harassment in 2007, including 377 cases of rape (166 minors) and 354 cases of gang rape (92 minors). These cases are estimated to represent the tip of the iceberg — most are never reported due to social, legal and economic repercussions. Naseema and Kainat’s cases fit the pattern of the accused in rape cases tending to be predominantly influential people or landlords in the community, a trend observed by the HRCP. Not surprisingly, most cases end in compromise.

The alternative is stigma, long drawn out legal procedures and even being forced to leave your home, your friends and neighbours, and your means of livelihood, as these families found. Since coming to Karachi over a year ago, they have had to rely on ’the kindness of strangers’ for sustenance. Family members with earning potential have been jobless or stuck in low-paying jobs due to physical insecurity, mental anxiety and depression, and lack of contacts. Meanwhile, volunteers have been raising money on an ad hoc basis. When it runs out, they scramble for more. It is a constant battle.

"We need to chalk out a long-term plan to deal with these issues," notes advocate Faisal Siddiqi, who has been working pro bono on these cases on behalf of the War Against Rape (WAR), Karachi. At a recent meeting with the survivors and their families to give them a realistic picture of the situation and impress upon them the need for self-sustenance given WAR’s limitations, he told them to be prepared for a long haul — "at least seven or eight years." Once the sessions court hands down its judgement (acquittal or punishment) after the trial which is currently in its initial phase, there is typically an appeal regarding the judgement before the High Court, then another appeal, and a review, before the Supreme Court. These main legal proceedings are further held up by the "collateral legal proceedings" like the bail of an accused and appeal against it.

As for the humanitarian angle, WAR is not a social welfare organisation. But its workers and volunteers find themselves having to go beyond the legal help and counselling that they are equipped to provide, and help the displaced family with shelter, food, health, schooling, and even contacting potential employers.

After taking on Kainat and Naseema’s cases, WAR found it necessary to start a Crisis Fund. It has also increased efforts to forge institutional linkages, for example with Indus Hospital which is providing the families with free medical aid and the Rahnuma Trust (which works with Indus Hospital) which pays for their prescription medicines. Efforts are afoot to send the displaced children back to school, including Kainat who was in class 8 when the incident happened. Another charitable foundation is paying for books, uniforms and other expenses.

Kainat’s family (eleven of them) lives in a bare two-room rental in Karachi. It is a far cry from their own place ("the best in our neighbourhood," says Tasleem) but it’s secure, situated below the absentee landlord’s top floor apartment. Back home, Ghulam Nabi Soomro was a respected citizen, president of the transporters’ union, able to support his family comfortably. He now updates a WAR worker, Kainat sitting by him on a mat on the floor, eyes downcast, clasping and unclasping her hands.

Their economic situation is precarious despite the number of family members with earning potential. Both Tasleem and Kainat’s other sister-in-law are qualified Lady Health Visitors. Tasleem, a first division pass, applied for a transfer to Karachi that has been stuck at the Health Ministry for months. "You know that nothing happens without ’Quaid-e-Azams’," she says wryly, referring to the bribes required to ’move the file’. She has applied to various schools and institutions for employment. Tasleem’s breastfeeding baby Muskan clambers around her mother who shows us the embroidered cloth pieces they want to sell. So far, there are no buyers.

Tasleem’s husband Noor Nabi, the only earning member of the family, brings in a paltry Rs2000 a month as a driver. A recent donation has enabled another brother, 17-year old Bilawal, to rent a pushcart and buy cosmetics to sell on the street below. "We don’t like him going further because they (the perpetrators) are still around," says Kainat’s father Ghulam Nabi Soomro, adding, "I always wore crisp white shalwar-kurta and held my head high. Now, my head is like this, low. The political leaders are fighting among themselves while we are stuck in the middle. I feel driven to the point of wanting to commit suicide..."

This is how the rape survivor’s trauma envelopes the entire family, particularly if they file a criminal case, forced displacement and lack of security adding to the psychological trauma and the long drawn out legalities.

Mukhtaran Mai was an exception. In her high-profile case in 2002, supported by the media and local and international NGOs, the government had to provide police protection at her doorstep. Six years later however, despite her celebrity status, even she has yet to receive justice, her case still pending in court.

At the fifth floor apartment in Karachi that Naseema’s family has taken refuge in, a tangled mass of children, barely awake, huddle in one corner of the verandah. There are seven children in Naseema’s family, including the eldest Naseema herself. Her mother’s younger brother and his wife also live there with their six children, including a new baby. The families are inseparable, but the children often squabble, tensions exacerbated by being constantly cramped together. Brought up in a rural setting, they are afraid to step out (not that there are any open spaces nearby where they could get some fresh air). Some developed a vicious looking skin disease, now under control, that volunteers arranged treatment for.

They are grateful to the political worker who provided this partially furnished place, gratis. "Otherwise, we would be out on the streets. We can’t thank him enough," says Naseema’s father Hamza Gaman Khan, a grizzled, sturdy 50-something. The constant din of buses in the street five floors down nearly drowns out his voice.

Naseema, like Kainat, twists and untwists her thin fingers constantly. She has lost much weight over the past few months. She stopped going for the psychological counselling that the NGO had arranged during the tension-filled time when her case along with Kainat’s was re-transferred to Dadu. They were later re-transferred back to Karachi after much effort.

The oldest literate person here is Naseema’s younger brother, Ali Asghar, 16, a student of class eight who tutored younger children in Sindhi before being uprooted. Naseema and her mother try to take pride in their skills, showing us the incomplete rillis (patchwork) they have made to sell. They are too afraid to go to the market to buy more material. There is no money, in any case. They cannot afford to pay for electricity, gas, or water — they have to haul up buckets from a community tap downstairs; the ’stove’ consists of two bricks fired by plank-wood. Donations raised are needed for the more essential food items. The day we visited, food had just run out — they had been subsisting on tea since the day before.

"We can bear anything but we can’t bear to see the children hungry," said Hamza, his eyes welling over suddenly. Nasreen Siddiqui, a WAR volunteer who has been following the case for over a year, and is impressed with his courage and forbearance, said she had never seen him weep before.

"We are not beggars, we want to work," said Hamza, showing a thick file of documents certifying his experience and reliability as a driver working on contract for a multinational company in Ghotki for almost thirty years. (The company subsequently employed him at their Karachi office). Jamaldin works as a daily wage labourer at a shipyard. That day, he was home with a back injury. Ali Asghar had a job at a restaurant kitchen in Clifton. Work started at 10 am and ended at midnight. With no money for transport, he walked the eight kilometres there and back every day. Shortly afterwards, he cut his hand while slicing onions and quit.

A generous citizen has since offered to sponsor his education and pay a stipend. The parents have agreed but are afraid to send the younger ones to school. "If they kidnap a child, we would be terribly weakened," said Hamza.

With Hamza’s job and Ali Asghar’s stipend, their lives may now be limping back to normalcy. But the trauma will remain. Charity destroys self respect. Even helping people find employment is band aid — necessary, but band aid nonetheless. The real issue remains the rape of these girls and the fact that they are not getting justice. If they were to agree to a ’compromise’, their troubles would be over in a flash. They could go home and resume their lives. That is not an option they are willing to consider, despite all the difficulties.