On April 6, 1999, twenty-seven-year-old Samia Sarwar was gunned down in her attorneys' office in Lahore by a hit man retained by her family. Her mother, father, and paternal uncle were all accomplices to her murder. Ms. Sarwar was killed because she was seeking a divorce from her estranged husband-an action her family deemed "dishonorable" and, hence, warranting death. That Ms. Sarwar suffered such drastic consequences for asserting a modicum of independence is not surprising in Pakistan, where the practice of so-called honor killing claims the lives of hundreds of women every year. Ms. Sarwar's transgression, in the eyes of her family, was seeking a divorce; other women are attacked, by or at the instigation of family members, for choosing their spouses. In addition, countless women suffer from battery, rape, burning, acid attacks, and mutilation. Estimates of the percentage of women who experience spousal abuse alone range from 70 to upwards of 90 percent. If there is anything more disturbing than the prevalence of these crimes, it is the impunity with which they are committed. Samia Sarwar's case is an example not only of the violence experienced by Pakistani women but also of the lack of governmental will to do anything about it. As this report went to print, months after her murder, Ms. Sarwar's killers had still not been brought to trial despite exceptionally strong and credible evidence against them. Similarly, of 215 cases of women being suspiciously burned to death in their Lahore homes in 1997, in only six cases were suspects even taken into custody.
Women in Pakistan face staggeringly high rates of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence while their attackers largely go unpunished owing to rampant incompetence, corruption, and biases against women throughout the criminal justice system. Women who report rape or sexual assault encounter a series of obstacles. These include not only the police, who resist filing their claims and misrecord their statements, but also medicolegal doctors, who focus on their virginity status and lack the training and supplies to conduct adequate examinations. As for the trial in rape cases, typically, in the words of a Lahore district attorney, "The past sexual history of the victim is thrown around and touted in court to the maximum." Furthermore, women who file rape charges open themselves up to the possibility of being prosecuted for illicit sex if they fail to "prove" rape under the 1979 Hudood Ordinances, which criminalize adultery and fornication. As a result, when women victims of violence resort to the judicial system for redress, they are more likely to find further abuse and victimization.
Women victims of domestic violence encounter even higher levels of unresponsiveness and hostility, as actors at all levels of the criminal justice system typically view domestic violence as a private matter that does not belong in the courts. Police respond to domestic violence charges by trying to reconcile theconcerned parties rather than filing a report and arresting the perpetrator, and the few women who are referred to medicolegal doctors for examination are evaluated by skeptical physicians who lack any training in the collection of forensic evidence. When asked about the domestic violence victims who have been examined at his office, the head medicolegal doctor for Karachi explained that "25 percent of such women come with self-inflicted wounds."
Human Rights Watch has investigated the Pakistan government's response to the pervasive problem of violence against women in the country's two largest cities, Karachi and Lahore. Despite the severity of the problem, the government's response has been indifferent at best. At worst it has served to exacerbate the suffering of women victims of violence and to obstruct the course of justice. Our findings highlight that a grossly inadequate and discriminatory legal framework is only one of a whole series of hurdles for victims seeking redress. Victims also have to contend with biased officials and outright harassment at every step of the law enforcement process, from the initial registering of a complaint to the trial. Only the most persistent and resourceful complainants succeed in maneuvering such hostile terrain, and even those who do seldom see their attackers punished. In the course of our investigation, we interviewed human rights lawyers and activists, police officials, medicolegal doctors, the personnel of government forensic laboratories, prosecutors, judges, and women victims of violence who had attempted to navigate the criminal justice system in order to obtain redress. Our findings are based on these interviews and on-site visits to government hospitals, medicolegal centers, and analytical laboratories.
Human Rights Watch examined the state response to sexual violence outside the home as well as to sexual and other violence by intimate partners. However, this report deals primarily with the former because we were unable to identify even one domestic violence victim whose criminal complaint had been registered by the police. We found that, with the exception of the rare high-profile incident, domestic violence cases were virtually never investigated or prosecuted. In fact, Pakistani law fails to criminalize a common and serious form of domestic violence: marital rape. Even complaints regarding acts of domestic violence that fall within the ambit of the criminal law, such as assault or attempted murder, are routinely ignored or downplayed by the police as a result of biased attitudes and ignorance and lack of training with respect to the scope of the law. Such resistance on the part of the police to recognize domestic violence as a crime allows the battering of women to continue with impunity and contributes to a climate that deters women from reaching out for safety and justice.
Although the most determined and resilient complainants in cases of non-familial sexual violence fare marginally better in terms of getting access to thejudicial system, they face an extremely adverse legal regime. A stark example of the serious flaws in the applicable legislation is the fact that the very filing of rape charges can make the victim vulnerable to prosecution for extramarital sex. In some instances victims of rape and sexual abuse have actually been detained for months or even years, prior to trial, on charges of illicit sexual intercourse. Since statutory rape is not a crime in Pakistan, even barely pubescent girls alleging rape risk being charged with fornication or consensual sex outside of marriage. The possibility of prosecution, especially in a context where women victims of sexual violence are routinely disrespected and disbelieved by state officials, serves strongly to inhibit victims from pressing charges.
Sexual violence victims' first contact with the law enforcement system generally occurs at the police station. Here, right from the start, they typically encounter rejection of their complaints and harassment. The station chief of a busy Lahore police station told Human Rights Watch that rape did not exist in Pakistani society. He stated his belief that in practically all cases of alleged rape, women had consented to the act of intercourse and then lied to incriminate their male partners. These sentiments were echoed by several other police officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Given the prevalence of such biased attitudes among officials, it is not surprising that women complainants are consistently turned away from police stations and, at times, are even intimidated or warned against attempting to file charges. The police also intervene, often at the behest of the accused, to try to force the concerned parties to reach a settlement without officially registering a complaint. When a complaint is registered, usually through herculean efforts on behalf of the victim, any follow-up by the police is generally minimal and rudimentary, a mockery of professional investigative methodology. Furthermore, even such limited action by the police usually requires persistent inquiries and pressure from the complainant.
Serious failings also exist in the government's collection and analysis of medicolegal evidence, which is a practical prerequisite for securing convictions in cases of sexual assault. In many cases, police unnecessarily delay informing women of the necessity of a medicolegal examination and giving them the official referrals required for this purpose. This consistent lapse on the part of the police is especially egregious in view of the transient nature of forensic medical evidence and its critical importance in cases of sexual assault. Nor do the police ensure, where legitimate and possible, that the accused undergoes a prompt medicolegal evaluation. A timely examination of the accused can yield significant evidence of signs of struggle in cases where the victim resisted the attack, evidence that can be crucial for exonerating the victim from charges of consensual illicit sex.
When medicolegal examinations are performed, they are frequently conducted in a haphazard manner and fail to secure meaningful evidence. Doctors focus on determining whether and when the hymen was broken rather than on collecting evidence to demonstrate the extent and severity of women's injuries and to identify offenders. In some cases, unmarried women who, in the examining doctors' opinion, were not virgins prior to being attacked tend to be harassed and their rape allegations disbelieved by the doctors. The examination findings also render them vulnerable to attacks on their character by defense counsel and, potentially, to prosecution for prior illicit sex. The focus on the hymen also militates against effective examinations of sexually active married women because their injuries are not usually related to hymenal tearing. In addition to shoddy examinations, chemical analysis of forensic samples collected from the examinees is commonly mishandled and produces unreliable results.
The court system presents its own set of hurdles for women seeking redress. Magistrates and judges often have discriminatory and sexist assumptions about women that prejudice the few cases that do reach the courts. State prosecutors have little or no training in handling cases of sexual and other violence against women and are largely ignorant as to the significance and interpretation of forensic medical evidence in such cases. Judges allow defense counsel free rein to introduce inflammatory evidence and to attack the victim's character and prior sexual history even when this is patently irrelevant. Furthermore, in many instances, cases drag on for years. For a woman seeking redress, her experience with the judicial system is often more likely to compound the trauma of the original assault than to provide the satisfaction of seeing justice done.
Pakistan is obliged by its ratification of international treaties to ensure respect for women's human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Pakistan acceded in 1996, requires the government to take action to eliminate violence against women as a form of discrimination that inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men. Pakistan's CEDAW obligations extend to the provision of an effective remedy to women victims of violence. Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Pakistan has not signed but which is a cornerstone of international human rights law, requires governments to ensure the rights to life and security of the person of all individuals in their jurisdiction, without distinction of any kind, including sex. In line with the ICCPR, Pakistan should not only refrain from, but should also prevent private actors from committing, acts of violence against women. Human Rights Watch found that rather than responding actively to violations of women's rights to life, to security of the person, and to befree of discrimination, the government has acted, through its police, medicolegal, prosecutorial, and judicial systems, to block access to redress and justice for women victims of violence.