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A Pakistani police officer monitors the area during a Shiite Muslim's Muharram procession in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

A 22-year-old woman in Rawalpindi district in Pakistan’s Punjab province reported to police that four men had abducted her at gunpoint and raped her. Most disturbingly, she alleged that three of the four assailants were police officers.

The authorities have since arrested all four suspects and suspended three police officers as criminal investigations proceed.

This is one of several recent incidents in which Pakistani police – the very people who should be tackling rape and protecting the public – have been accused of committing sexual violence. In April 2019, an assistant sub-inspector of police was charged with raping a woman in Bahawalpur district, Punjab. The woman had earlier gone to the police station to report that she had been gang raped, but says that the official later called her back to the station claiming he needed to record her statement, and then raped her. In September 2018, another police official was charged with raping a 6-year-old girl in Dera Ghazi Khan district, Punjab.

These cases highlight the difficulty Pakistan’s sexual violence survivors have getting recourse. Sexual assault victims often fear pressing charges because they and their families may become subject to harassment and intimidation by the police, due to harmful gender attitudes and pressure from perpetrators. Without proper witness protection, survivors can easily be intimidated into silence. These barriers reflect deeply entrenched gender inequality within Pakistani society, including in state institutions such as the police and judiciary.

The prompt police response in the Rawalpindi case reflected in large measure the willingness of the victim to speak up and the impact of media coverage. Now it’s up to local authorities to fully and fairly prosecute those responsible, whatever their affiliation.

Pakistan faces grave security challenges that require a rights-respecting, accountable police force able to protect the entire population. When police become perpetrators of sexual violence, the credibility of all police are damaged and victims are even less likely to seek their help. Pakistani authorities need to act decisively. They should ensure that police officers responsible for 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.

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