Another ‘revenge rape’
Fifteen years on since that tragedy in June 2002, not very far from the village of Mukhtaran Mai, something else has happened. It was unexpected because of the widespread outrage her case had stirred in Pakistan and around the world. Early this month, a panchayat (village council) in Muzaffargarh district ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl as “punishment” – because her brother had raped a 12-year-old girl. Since the panchayat system is rejuvenated as a result of the passage of the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill by the National Assembly, revenge rapes remain a frightful possibility, particularly in the poorer and more backward Southern Punjab. Almost none is reported to the police, but in this case, a few days after the crime, the victims’ parents approached the police. In no time, the incident was breaking news and headlined on the front pages. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif asked for the report and the Chief Justice of Pakistan took cognizance of this revenge rape incident. Meanwhile, almost all the members of the panchayat and the rapists have been arrested.Whatever happens in the courts, the escape route has been provided by the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill, because the panchayat system has been resurrected from its deathbed by this piece of legislation in the National Assembly. It tends to give legitimacy to the notorious jirga and panchyayat systems. And in a glaring mockery of justice, the bill was passed when in the 342-member National Assembly only 23 were present in the House. And no one pointed out the lack of quorum.
A government which can spend billions on mega-transport systems and whose members go globe-trotting was reluctant to set up more courts to deliver speedy justice, instead of reviving this mediaeval “dispute resolution” mechanism. This is not a simple piece of legislation; it covers 23 offences ranging from land and business disputes to family matters, and seeks “reconciliation” instead of penalizing wrongdoers. Since the jirgas and panchayats are both male-exclusive, even though quite often they have to deal with cases involving women, they are traditionally biased against females. This law also tends to perpetuate the hold of influential people and clerics, and at the same time renders family laws and family courts dysfunctional. Who doesn’t know that these illegal “courts” give verdicts like offering little girls in marriage as “wani,” vindicate crimes like honour-killings and order punishable individuals to walk on burning coals to prove their innocence.
It is imperative the Alternate Dispute Resolution law, which infuses life into the panchayat and jirga systems, is either repealed or cases concerning women are taken out of its jurisdiction. The National Assembly should have passed legislation strengthening the existing laws, which are a and extensively cover all these 23 offences, instead of passing this bill. There is the ombudsman’s office in every province, which can effectively deliver on almost all offences the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill is expected to deal with. Now when this case of revenge rape has come to the notice of those on the highest executive and judicial levels, there is hope that a dramatic outcome, possibly in terms of the permanent demise of systems like panchayat and jirga. Whatever it takes, delivering speedy justice to the aggrieved should be the state’s exclusive responsibility.