February 10th, 2022
By Xari Jalil
“I wanted to kill myself…I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror…I felt like I was dirty.”
Nadia*’s voice cracks as she speaks. She is sitting awkwardly at the edge of a chair, a scarf covering most of her face. The only thing baring her true emotions are her eyes – almost lifeless if not for the pain flashing within.
In 2018 Nadia was raped by a police officer inside his home, the very place where she had been employed as a domestic worker by his own wife. Three long years have passed since then, yet for Nadia the nightmare isn’t even close to being over as the case lingers on in court and the accused is still out, living a normal life. The fact that he was working in the Anti-Corruption Department also, did not make things any easier as he has been using his influence throughout the case.
Like any long-term sexual abuse, the rape did not come all of a sudden, rather it was preceded by a series of red flags. There was leering and touching, all behind his wife’s back, while Nadia was supposed to be taking care of the pregnant woman and her household chores.
“Whenever he passed me by or got the chance, he used to grope me,” says Nadia. “I tried to ignore this though, thinking it would go away on its own. Then at least twice, he physically forced himself on me.”
A* violently assaulted her, forcing her to perform oral sex on him, and even ejaculated in her mouth, leaving the 12-year-old shocked, ashamed, and sickened by what was happening to her. If that was not all, he made sure she stayed within his sight at all times. A sense of dread bubbled within her, and something told her this would only get worse with time, but she had no idea how.
“Of course, I wanted to leave at once, but he hounded me day in and day out, making sure that I could not escape,” she says. “Then one day, soon after the assault, he dragged me into a room, forcibly stripped me, and brutally raped me.”
Before Nadia could make sense of what he had even done, she was threatened by A* that he would kill her if she breathed even a word of this to anyone.
Telling her story is always uncomfortable, and Nadia clenches her fists, digging her fingernails inside the palm of her hand. She shifts on the chair, and her eyes wander off in embarrassment and confusion. Now a 15-year-old, Nadia has still not been able to cope with the rape itself, or its aftermath.
She has been telling her story for the last three years, to indifferent police officers who refused to even raid A’s house after he was nominated in the FIR – to various opportunistic lawyers, who ended up only siphoning money but did not do anything to ensure that the case became stronger in court.
“A* had two wives; I worked for his second wife, but he often used to visit his first wife too,” says Nadia. “But since he did this to me, he kept an eye on me all the time, and had even stopped visiting her.”
But Nadia kept looking for her chance and she found it one day when the accused and his wife had gone to the hospital. She instantly fled back to her mother’s place at once, crying and sobbing as soon as she saw her mother.
That was in April 2018. Today, three years later, A* is still out there, while Nadia – scarred and traumatized for life, continues to run back and forth pleading for justice, hoping that her case in court is heard.
CARRYING THE WEIGHT OF PAIN
Rasheeda* Bibi dips into nostalgia as she looks at a creased and faded photograph of her four daughters – the only one she has. Three of the children are standing and looking into the camera. The fourth, who is the youngest, just around a year old, is intently studying the ground she is sitting on.
“After their father died at the age of 24, I brought them all up single-handedly,” she says, proudly. Pointing to the youngest child, her smile fades a little. “That’s her, that’s my Nadia,” she says. “I thought I could bring them up safely, but these people have spoilt our lives.” Her eyes fill up with tears and her voice trembles.
It was Rehana*, the woman whose house Rasheeda worked in, who had revealed that her daughter needed help at home.
“She told me her daughter was pregnant and needed domestic help – someone like a young girl,” remembers Rasheeda. “That was when I offered the services of my youngest daughter. I thought she doesn’t go to school, and she is alone at home most of the time – why not earn some money?”
But, says Rasheeda Bibi, when her daughter went to Rehana to confide in her about the abuse that was taking place, Rehana only admonished her in return. “It was like giving him indirect permission to carry on raping her. It must have happened a few more times after that.”
At first, Rasheeda had no idea this was happening – Nadia was living in that house away from her. She was only meant to have a couple of months off so she waited for that time. But Rasheeda saw her daughter home earlier than expected – in a state of shock, and constantly weeping.
“I kept asking her what happened and then she told me the whole story,” says Rasheeda, her brow furrowing. “For about a couple of hours, I myself almost collapsed and had to make myself digest this news. I did not know what to do. Then I thought I should take her directly to the police for a complaint.”
But when mother and daughter went to the (Shahdra) police station to file a complaint, they were met with the usual indifference.
“They tried to dissuade us from filing the report; they wanted us to settle out of court,” says Rasheeda. “But we were adamant on having our complaint filed.
“The emotional state we were in….my mother and I had to sit there all day long just to have a statement written. It took us days. Every day for three or four days the police used to tell us to come the following day. Finally, the FIR was filed, but then there was no investigation or follow up on the case.”
This situation ended up causing a rift within the family. Rasheeda says most of the family gave up on them when they refused to make a deal with the perpetrator.
“Not once have I received any support from the family over what happened to my child,” she remarks bitterly. “One of my brothers passed away – I believe due to the agony of it all, but all my other brothers, and relatives – all of them told me to leave the case and to take the money that A* had been offering. But I didn’t. Are my daughter’s self-respect and dignity that cheap that I should exchange it for money?”
Meanwhile realizing that a police report was filed, accused A* began using his influence on the investigation of the case and ultimately had himself declared ‘innocent’ by the Investigating Officer (IO).
This turn of events only caused more pain and anguish to Nadia and her mother. The child began to turn depressed and suicidal. One day she ended up swallowing a bottleful of bleach and had to be taken to hospital.
In disjointed sentences, Nadia attempts at explaining how she felt when she felt the case was becoming worse for her.
“I felt claustrophobic like I had no way out,” she says. “I wanted to kill myself….There was this feeling…a person doesn’t want to face anyone…that is what I felt. I didn’t even understand properly what was going on – we are not that educated, so we didn’t understand much of the whole legal process. But this is what I felt.”
Rasheeda Bibi came home to find her daughter collapsed in a heap on the floor, frothing at the mouth. She called her brother and they rode on a motorcycle taking her to the hospital. Her insides were burnt, the doctors told her. Miraculously she survived.
“Nadia’s case clearly establishes the failure of the criminal justice system for survivors of sexual violence”, says Advocate Nida Aly, who is also the executive director of the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS) which is fighting the case on behalf of Nadia. “There is child abuse, child exploitation, and sexual violence. There is a 12 year old child, a sexual violence survivor, who had a police FIR filed but the accused who himself is a police officer has been using his rank and designation to subvert the entire system in his favour, to the extent that he had a false FIR filed against the IO to have himself be declared innocent.”
Aly says this was despite the fact that there was medical evidence in the case as well as the child’s ocular evidence.
“The case finally came to us after a year and a half, and we took it to the magistrate as a private complaint, and we started her case in the Sessions court and ensured there were charges filed against him. The accused police officer had also absconded in the middle for about a year, and the case was halted. It only started again when he presented himself a year later,” says Aly. “This is a kind of a test case which proves that a person who is powerful enough can change the outcome of criminal cases, by manipulating the system.”
SURVIVING THE SYSTEM
Nida Aly also says that they tried to have the court case transferred to the Gender Based Violence (GBV) courts that had been specifically set up to address such cases with sensitivity. Sadly no one allowed this to happen.
“Because she was a 12 year old child-victim of trauma and sexual abuse, we tried our best to take this case to the GBV court, but on all three forums – from the sessions’ court to the high court and the Supreme Court, no judge transferred this case to the GBV,” she says.
“They said the GBV court is not made under any law or under the CrPC, so its validity is not recognized and so the case was not sent there,” she says. This was unfortunate because the GBV court has a better conviction rate that of 16.5%. There are also some safeguards being followed there which are important for a trauma victim.
GBV COURTS NEED MORE ATTENTION
In ordinary courts, rape cases fare far worse than in GBV courts.
“The conviction rate of rape is around 3 percent,” says Nida Aly. “There are many reasons for this, but the main reason is that most of the cases go unreported and the ones that are, have to face a very hostile environment. Unfortunately, the entire criminal justice system works in favor of the accused. The first responders or the police – the victim has to face hostility – usually, there are no women around; even if there are, there is a prevailing mindset in this thana culture, that complaints of sexual abuse are false or based on a personal vendetta.”
Once the FIR is filed and the collection of evidence is done, the next stage in the criminal justice system is that of the judiciary. But even here the case does not do any better.
“A rape trial goes on for at least two years on average, and the conviction rate is low because the victim or survivor is vulnerable, and does not have financial or legal resources.
“Facing people in a public court for two years constantly is extremely difficult for such a survivor,” says Nida. “Even statements can be withdrawn. In the AGHS experience, the role of the police has always been very negative. The police wants that there should be a raazi nama (compromise) so the case is withdrawn and thousands of such cases are affected in this way. But this is a non-compoundable offence where there is absolutely no room for compromise – it’s a crime against the State. Even if the witness becomes hostile it should still continue on basis of evidence.”
Unfortunately though, in the legal justice system, as soon as the witness turns hostile the case is dropped, says Nida, because an application for acquittal is sent through.
“The problem of not recognizing GBV courts as a legal entity has now been resolved,” says lawyer Nida Usman Chaudhry, who is part of the statutory committee under Section 15 of the Anti-Rape Act. Usman has also served a stint as chairperson of the Gender Equality and Diversity Committee of the Lahore’s High Court Bar Association. “in the recently passed Anti Rape Act, Section 3 empowers the Federal government to collaborate with the High Court and establish special GBV courts; however existing courts under additional sessions’ judges can also be designated as special court under the law. In fact under certain terms, a practicing lawyer can also be appointed as judge in these courts.”
One such court has been constituted by the IHC, where Justice Atta Rabbani is the judge. Nida Usman believes that this development is a ray of light where more courts can be given this status, and where a victim-centric approach is taken.
However she adds that the problem is not just the establishment of these courts.
“A GBV court must have video screening facilities in case a victim is in a remote location, or cannot make an appearance; the staff must be of made up of women, including the prosecutors. In such courts there must not be a crowd either. Till these requirements are met the purpose of the GBV courts will not be fulfilled.”
According to a detailed analysis done by the Karachi-based Legal Aid Society (LAS), such issues are the main reason why women and minor girls find it challenging to access justice.
Even though the study has been done regarding the criminal justice system present in Sindh, the main issues remain the same in other provinces too.
Cases such as Nadia’s only serve to consolidate the duress and the intimidation that sexual violence survivors face and feel in getting recourse.
These survivors are scared of pressing charges in fear of repercussions either by the police, or the perpetrator. No proper witness protection results in sexual assault survivors be easily pressured into silence or withdrawing their statements.
Nadia and her mother have not backed down from fighting the case. But Rasheeda Bibi has tried to make sure that Nadia would be protected if she suddenly died. So despite her being a minor, Rasheeda married Nadia off to a first cousin who initially willingly accepted her regardless of what happened.
But a few months down the marriage and her mother in law in order to have Nadia bear children, made an illiterate mid-wife push some “herbal medicine” into her cervix. It has resulted in an infection which makes it unbearable for Nadia to even sit in one place. Apart from this, her husband beat her up so badly, she returned home battered and bruised.
“I was so happy she had found a life of her own,” says Rasheeda Bibi. “We even made a video of the wedding. She hardly even got a few months of happiness. Who knows, maybe he was offered money by A*?”
ABUSER BEHIND THE BADGE
For a rape survivor perhaps the worst is when the protector becomes the predator.
Going over the past few years, the number of cases where police officers have been involved in sexual abuse or assault is appalling. In Rawalpindi in 2019, a woman was gang-raped by four men – three she reported had been police officers.
In April 2019, a woman faced the trauma of being raped twice, when she went to the station to report that she had been raped, an assistant sub-inspector of police who was present also raped her. And while the police had filed the report, the accused was not immediately arrested.
Earlier in September 2018, a police officer was charged with raping a six-year-old girl in Dera Ghazi Khan.
According to Saroop Ijaz, Senior Counsel (Asia division) for the Human Rights Watch, “When police become perpetrators of sexual violence, the credibility of all police is damaged, and victims are even less likely to seek their help.”
He says that Pakistani authorities must ensure that police officer responsible for (such) crimes are appropriately held to account; undertake long-overdue reforms to increase the recruitment, retention, and promotion of female police officers; and make sure that female police officers are deployed so that all survivors of sexual violence get the assistance they need.
Former AIG Gender Crimes Punjab, Maria Mehmood is now using her police experience to train young officers at the National Training Academy Islamabad. She is using Nadia’s case as an example during her training sessions. And while there are ideal solutions on paper to deal with such crimes, she has observed that when it comes to police officers who are involved in GBV, there is a gap in implementation.
“The prevailing mindset is such that GBV is rarely regarded as a crime even by many within the force,” she says. “This is why we are imparting at least 25 percent of our training concerning women, children, and other vulnerable groups. When I tell of the Nadia case in my sessions, trainee police officers are shocked.”
The training is focusing more on junior to mid-career officers because unfortunately, those who are senior-level officers are the most apathetic especially those on supervisory designations.
“There will be an inquiry if the matter is dealt with but much of the time the matter is not confronted,” she says referring to police officers being involved. “We saw a senior police chief of an urban center like Lahore, make a statement about a rape survivor that shocked the entire nation. The attitude is that GBV is a non-issue especially when there are also other crimes happening around us.”
However, the ray of light is that within the younger generation, everyone believes that GBV must not be overlooked.
“Currently I am helping develop a national gender strategy which will address several issues within the police force as well. We want to quell the attitude where there is zero investigation when the victim withdraws her statement. No one asks why she has done this.”
For someone accused of rape, there must be accountability and punishment. Sadly the accused in this case is very much still a serving officer. For the rape survivor, this is like laughing off the pain she was caused.
And while Rasheeda Bibi wipes off a tear rolling down her face, she resolves not to let go. “They have destroyed our lives,” she says. “I could die any day leaving my daughter alone. But at least, I will have fought for justice.”