Islamabad – An 18-year-old girl died after setting herself on fire outside a police station in Bet Mir Hazar in Punjab’s Muzaffargarh district in March 2014. In the same district, a woman set herself ablaze in front of the City police station 19 months later. She did not survive her burn injuries, either.
Four months earlier, a 35-year-old woman had set herself on fire in front of the Nankana Saddar police station in district Sheikhupura, some 400 kilometres north of Muzaffargarh. On 4 December 2016, another woman tried to commit suicide by burning herself alive in the Shujabad tehsil of Punjab’s Multan district.
All these women were rape survivors.
All of them were protesting against injustice and police collusion in their cases.
The Bet Mir Hazar teenager directly blamed the police investigation officer for favouring the accused in her case. Her alleged rapist had been set free on bail before she killed herself.
The woman who self-immolated in protest in front of the Muzaffargarh city police station had accused two police officers of raping her.
The 35-year-old from Sheikhupura felt police officers were not doing anything to arrest her rapists, and the Shujabad woman believed police had joined hands with the culprits in her case.
These four women were forced to try to take their lives because they could see the Punjab criminal justice system had failed them at its primary level: the law-enforcement branch. The ordeal these women went through is an experience they share with thousands of women in Punjab who find themselves at the mercy of the police.
Over 8,000 rape cases were reported to the police between 2014 and 2016 in the province, according to Punjab Police data on violence-against-women incidents. In the same three-year period, 646 gang rape cases were also reported in Punjab.
The reported crimes data was sourced through the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), a statutory body set up by the Punjab government to promote and protect women’s rights.
The PCSW shared the data in response to a Right to Information (RTI) request filed by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), a non-profit that works on RTI advocacy. CPDI in turn shared the data with Media for Transparency.
In the first six months of 2017 alone, the data shows, there were 1,365 rape and 84 gang rape cases in Punjab. This translates to eight incidents being reported each day from January to June in 2017.
It also means that rapes made up around 41% of all women-related incidents reported to police in Punjab over a three-and-a-half year period, according to the reported crimes data.
No Protection for Women’s Bodies
Faisalabad, Rahim Yar Khan, Muzaffargarh, Pakpattan and Multan were the worst districts with most rape cases registered there. A total of 649 rape cases were reported to police in Faisalabad alone between 2014 and 2016.
Muzaffargarh, where women burned themselves to death at the Bet Mir Hazar and City police stations in 2014 and 2015, had 462 rape cases in the three years, around half of which occurred only in 2016.
In April 2016, a Muzaffargarh woman moved the Supreme Court that local police had threatened to kill her and implicate her family in forged cases after she had filed a gang rape case againt her private security company employer and a police officer.
This woman, too, threatened in her First Investigation Report (FIR) that she would burn herself alive in front of the district police office if she was denied justice.
Lahore (100 cases), Kasur (61), Sheikhupura (56), Gujranwala (49), and Multan (29) had the worst record for gang rape cases, with Faisalabad and Muzaffargarh also among the 10 districts with most gang rape cases between 2014 and 2016.
But these are only crimes that were reported to the police.
The experience of the four women who attempted suicide after being denied justice suggests some women might even decide against reporting the crimes at all.
Scratching the Surface
Fauzia Viqar, the PCSW chairperson, is familiar with the under-reporting of violent crimes committed against women.
“It’s not just our feeling but it is our experience that the cases reported are only a fraction of the cases that actually take place,” Ms. Viqar said, during an interview with Media for Transparency. “A lot of time women decide not to proceed with their complaints, especially when it is related to sexual violence.”
She said social stigmas were partly responsible for this reluctance in reporting violent crimes. Sometimes women internalize the blame for the violence perpetrated against them, she said.
On other occasions, concepts of shame and family honour offer resistance.
“People also blame a woman’s character when we look at a rape case,” Ms. Viqar said. “If a woman decides to report the case to the police, her marriage prospects are compromised, and if the woman is already married, she faces accusations from her husband.”
Police behaviour, however, is a major factor in keeping women from justice in rape cases.
“Women definitely are hesitant to go to a police station because they face secondary victimization at the stations,” Ms. Viqar said. “The questions asked by police officers are often insensitive. They make the women relive the trauma, so women try to avoid it.”
She said Punjab Police has established new front desks at police stations where officers are more cooperative to the women complainants but there were still obstacles.
“At the end of the day, the FIR has to be written by a traditional Station House Officer (SHO), which again makes women nervous,” Ms. Viqar said.
Ghazala Sharif, a woman police officer from Lahore who has formerly served as a an SHO, said most Punjab Police stations tend to facilitate women complainants.
However, Ms. Sharif admitted there were times when women are treated insensitively by police officers.
“There are some instances like when a rape victim is questioned, they start asking inappropriate questions like, ‘how did this happen, when did it happen, what was the time,’” she said. “They (the police officers) exaggerate things so it becomes an embarrassing situation for the victim.”
Even with un-reported rape incidents, the number of rapes reported to police in 2016 increased by around 15% compared to 2015.
While rape and gang rape incidents dominated the reported crimes data, killings and domestic violence were also significant in the overall violent crimes committed against women in Punjab.
Killed in Whose Name?
Between 2014 and 2016, at least 2,453 women were murdered and another 660 were killed in the name of honour in Punjab, according to the crimes reported data.
More than 100 women were murdered in districts Lahore, Sargodha, Okara, Muzaffargarh, Vehari, Rawalpindi, Multan, and Kasur during this time period.
Faisalabad, which had the most rape incidents, also had the most cases of honour killings (104) reported between 2014 and 2016.
Three of these Faisalabad honour killings happened on the same day in the same house on 12 May 2016 when male relatives killed three women of their family aged 22, 28 and 29 on suspicion of illicit relations with other men, according to a news report.
Just like rape cases, the actual numbers for both women murders and honour killings might be quite high.
In women’s murders where men might try to suppress the incident, it is often the women of the family who have to inform the police and societal pressures could keep them from contacting law-enforcement.
Ms. Viqar said the PCSW has had set up a helpline (1043) to make it easier for women to record their complaints.
After queries about inheritance rights, Ms. Viqar said the question they get asked most often on the helpline is what should women do when they face domestic violence.
The Under-reporting of Domestic Violence
Around 9% of all 23,189 crimes reported between January 2014 and June 2017 were recorded under the “beatings” crime type, or domestic violence, by police.
Muzaffargarh, Multan and Kasur had over 200 beating incidents reported to the police.
But police officers often refrain from registering domestic abuse cases.
“There are a great number of domestic violence cases but when a women takes such a case to the police, the officers will try to lodge a complaint or what is called a katchi report in common parlance rather than a proper FIR,” Ms. Viqar said.
The katchi report does not become a part of the official police record and prevents the police from actually investigating the issue.
Officer Sharif, the former SHO from Lahore, defended against the katchi report.
She said the police officers have to verify a complainant’s claim before filing an FIR.
“We can’t just lodge an FIR straight away,” Ms. Sharif said. “First we have to look at what exactly are the facts, what are the ground realities, is this complaint even real.”
Ms. Viqar said in 80% of the domestic abuse complaints they receive on the PCSW helpline, the women say they would prefer if their husbands were just warned.
“If a woman pursues the case any further, she will have to go through a tedious judicial process and her husband might give her a divorce,” she said. “It’s just too much to deal with.”
Another crime category that falls under domestic violence is stove burning. Lahore had 14 cases of stove burning. This is roughly 60% of all such cases reported between January 2014 and June 2017 all over Punjab.
Ms. Viqar said there are more reported cases in big cities (and districts), such as Lahore, Faisalabad and Rawalpindi, because of more awareness among people and higher levels of literacy there.
“Women from smaller cities might not complain when they face violence if they know their husbands have considerable influence with the police officials,” she said. “Sometimes women who face abuse don’t even have the fare to reach a police station.”
The South Punjab Problem
Perhaps the most high profile woman murder that took place during the period covered by the crimes reported data is of Qandeel Baloch, the actor and social media celebrity.
Ms. Baloch, 26, was murdered on 15 July 2016. Originally believed to be an honour killing – Ms. Baloch’s brother had confessed he had murdered her by strangulation because he felt shame at her social media activity – the police are now building a case around a religious cleric suspected of ordering the murder.
A year and a half after the murder, the case is still underway at a sessions court, which granted bail to the cleric at the last hearing.
Ms. Baloch was murdered at her home in Multan, which is part of Punjab’s southern region also popularly known as South Punjab. It is not an adminsitrative entity, but comprises of at least 17 districts of the province and accounts for one-third of the provincial population.
South Punjab districts figure prominently in the reported crimes data for crimes committed against women.
Four of the five districts with most reported crimes committed against women are from the southern region of the province.
The mistreatment of women in South Punjab districts has also caught the PCSW’s attention.
“All our campaigns start from South Punjab,” Ms. Viqar said. “We use local newspapers, TV channels, and radio stations for the campaigns.”
She said they also have representatives and staff in each division who help with on-ground activities and advocacy.
In October 2016, Pakistan’s parliament passed an anti-honour killings bill and an anti-rape bill into law. The anti-honour killings legislation makes it difficult for families of the victims to pardon the killer, and even pardoned killers would face a minimum prison sentence. The anti-rape law will make it mandatory for police officers to inform rape survivors of their rights.
The Punjab Government also passed a Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016. The act includes punishments for acts of domestic violence and psychological abuse among other offences. Under the law, the provincial government plans to establish violence against women centres where women victims of violence can lodge complaints and seek shelter.
Ms. Viqar said due to pro-women legislation, more women have started to ask about their rights and began to report the incidents of abuse and violence they face.
“We have received 63,000 calls on our helpline,” she said. “Our helpline has been very successful and we are expanding our services in collaboration with FIA to include cyber harassment.”
The helpline might have been too late for the rape survivors from Muzaffargarh, Sheikhupura and Shujabad. But the PCSW administration could hope it will prevent more women from taking their own lives due to denied justice in the future.