The alleged gang-rape of a woman on a moving train has sparked anger in Pakistan, putting the spotlight on the South Asian nation’s poor record with women’s rights.
Three men – one of them a ticket checker – have been accused of raping the woman, a 25-year-old mother of two, as she traveled from the city of Karachi to Multan in Pakistan’s Punjab province last week, according to Pakistan’s Railway Ministry. It added the attack took place after the men asked her to move to a carriage with air conditioning.
The three men have been arrested on suspicion of rape, according to a police report seen by CNN.
Salman Sufi, the head of the Prime Minister’s Strategic Reforms Implementation Unit, told CNN Thursday that the government had ordered railway operators to improve the safety of women on trains, with measures including CCTV cameras in common areas, emergency buttons in cabins, and patrols by women police officers.
The incident has sparked anger in the democracy of 220 million, which has a poor track record in protecting women’s rights and where brutal acts of gender-based violence and sexual assault frequently make the headlines.
Fouzia Saeed, a women’s rights activist in Pakistan, called on the police to “make the environment safer” for women, while Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper on Wednesday expressed outrage at what it called “a ghastly crime.”
“Another horrific incident of sexual violence has come to light, underscoring how a cavalier approach to security arrangements can embolden criminally inclined men to indulge their worst instincts,” Dawn said in an editorial.
According to Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, more than 5,200 women reported being raped in the country in 2021, but experts believe the actual number to be much higher as many victims are too afraid to come forward due to social stigma and victim blaming in the patriarchal society.
Fewer than 3% of sexual assault or rape cases result in a conviction in Pakistan, Reuters reported in December 2020, citing Karachi-based non-profit War Against Rape.
In December 2020, the country toughened its rape law to create special courts to try cases within four months and provide medical examinations to women within six hours of a complaint being made.
Last November, Pakistan passed an anti-rape law that allows courts to order the chemical castration of sex offenders convicted of multiple rapes. Chemical castration is the use of drugs to reduce libido or sexual activity. It is a legal form of punishment in countries including South Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic and in some US states.
The changes were a response to a mass public outcry over a surge in rapes against women in the country, and growing demands for justice.
But rights groups criticized the legislation, instead calling on authorities to address the root of the problem.
Amnesty International said the penalty of chemical castration was “cruel and inhuman.”
“Instead of trying to deflect attention, the authorities should focus on the crucial work of reforms that will address the root causes of sexual violence and give survivors the justice they deserve,” Amnesty said.
Despite the recent toughening of anti-rape laws, activists say Pakistan continues to fail its women. It does not have a nationwide law criminalizing domestic violence, leaving many vulnerable to assault.
Last year, the beheading of Noor Mukadam, a Pakistani ambassador’s daughter, sent shockwaves through the country with protesters calling on the government to do more to protect women.
Her killer, Zahir Jaffer, the 30-year-old son of an influential family and a dual Pakistan-US national who knew Mukadam, was sentenced to death by an Islamabad judge in February.