Sidra Humayun

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Confronting Sexual Violence Head On in Pakistan
Sidra Humayun
“The government needs to understand and prioritize sexual violence as the large-scale problem that it is.”

Sidra Humayun has been working at War Against Rape (WAR) Lahore, an organization that works on the issue of sexual violence and provides survivors with moral, social, legal, psychological and medical assistance since 2005.  After having personally faced domestic violence, Sidra left her abusive marriage and decided to dedicate her life to working on the  issue of violence against women and particularly sexual violence -- one of the most taboo (yet widespread) issues facing women in Pakistan.

Sidra’s work to end sexual abuse against women has not only involved counselling and direct support to survivors, but also ensuring that the criminal justice and medical systems in Lahore and the surrounding areas of Punjab province of Pakistan respond effectively to the complex needs of victims. Despite threats against her, she continues to dedicate her time voluntarily to assist vulnerable women and girls and to help them access services that would otherwise be unavailable to them. On a recent visit to Pakistan, we sat down with Sidra to ask her about her work.

1. Can you describe the hurdles that female victims of sexual violence typically face in seeking justice and help in Pakistan?

Pakistan has an inadequate structure to support or provide justice to women and girls who have survived sexual abuse. The patriarchal nature of the society makes those in power unwilling to address issues related to women, especially those related to sexual abuse. Because the issue of sexual violence is such a taboo in Pakistan, women associated with sexual violence, even those working on the issue, are faced with stigma. It is difficult for women to go to police stations and courts due to a male-dominated society that sees women coming into male domains as unusual. Pakistani officials—in particular prosecutors, judges and police—find it difficult to imagine that ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ women would come to these places.

The justice system fails to protect victims, and instead, often makes their situations worse. Victims face many hurdles in the legal system; laws dealing with sexual violence are often lacking or not implemented correctly. 

Take, for example, the case of Mariam, a 15 year old girl who was raped by her father. When the case was initially reported, police officers tried to discourage her from making the complaint, telling her it would ruin her father. Her medical exam was poorly written and police cross examinations were humiliating and condescending. Her prosecutor began taking bribes from her father, so her lawyer had him suspended. In addition, she was told to testify in court while facing her father despite the psychological trauma that such an experience would bring. I had to carry a screen to court for every hearing in order to separate Mariam from her father during hearings.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Mariam’s case for all those involved was the length of the legal process. The case first went to trial in May 2010; however the first hearing did not take place until January 2011. Mariam, her family, her lawyer and I went to court every week, prepared to testify, but each time the case was adjourned for reasons beyond our control. Finally, after over two years of persistent efforts, the judge issued the death penalty to the perpetrator.

While WAR Against Rape does not condone the death penalty, we were relieved when Mariam finally received justice after a great deal of hardship and perseverance. Unfortunately, for most girls in Pakistan, this is not the reality as they do not have the support of an able lawyer, a local NGO and an international NGO as Mariam did. This case further highlighted for me how difficult it is for young girls to access justice in cases of sexual violence in Pakistan.

Victims seldom report cases and even the few reported cases do not make it very far in the justice system. Very few organizations in Pakistan deal with sexual violence, making my work unique but extremely difficult and an uphill battle on all fronts.

Organizations such as WAR are severely under-resourced, making it difficult for them to function at a scale that is needed. Due to a lack of funding, WAR cannot afford to give me a salary. However, I continue to work with WAR as a volunteer because I am truly committed to my work and towards helping victims of sexual violence.

2. You have handled a significant number of incest cases in your work.  Is there any difference in how these cases are received by authorities and the community at large?

Incest is one of the most invisible forms of violence; young girls are its most vulnerable victims. Incest victims have an even more difficult time coming forward and seeking justice than other rape victims. Since the perpetrator is a male family member with more power than the victim, speaking out about the abuse would result in dishonor to the family. The rights of the victim are often sacrificed in order to protect the family. Families generally keep the matter hidden, which can be extremely damaging for the victim.

Over the last three years I have come across several incest cases in my work. However, societal attitudes as well as disbelieving attitudes of police, prosecutors and judiciary make it very difficult to address these cases. The majority of cases do not go through the legal process, even when reported to police, as authorities assume that such cases are brought by victims and their families for ulterior motives. In addition, there is no specific provision for the crime of incest in Pakistan’s Penal Code.

The judgement in Mariam’s case, however, shows that there is hope for the future and that the Pakistani criminal justice system can work for its voiceless and vulnerable victims.  We hope to use this case to get legal reform to ensure that victims are treated fairly in the justice system, which is the light at the end of the tunnel.

3. Could you tell us about the hurdles, challenges, and threats you have faced in your work?

Difficulties exist at various levels ranging from going to police stations as a lone woman requesting case files, to having to protect survivors from the accused in public settings such as court. Dealing with the police can be very difficult in sexual abuse cases as they have preconceived stereotypes about women and do not believe that police stations and courts are places where ‘decent’ women should go.

In many cases I have encountered corruption where police officers have been bribed by the accused in order to hide the facts of the case. In some instances evidence is misplaced or hidden, which harms and slows down the case investigation process considerably. And when survivors are taken for a medical examination, the staff at government hospitals do not have the expertise to handle rape cases and are unaware of correct procedures when collecting evidence, which then weakens the legal case.

Sometimes, due to lack of training, lawyers are unable to represent survivors adequately, which makes the work of activists like myself more challenging. The judicial system is slow, and legal proceedings are lengthy, resulting in cases lingering for years. This leads to increased financial burdens on survivors, their families, and the organizations supporting them with counseling and legal services.  

Personally, I am at risk in assisting survivors as the perpetrators view me as the enemy. During one incident when I was supporting a 12 year-old girl who was the victim of a gang rape, I accompanied the family to the office of the Senior Superintendent of Police. While walking through the corridor I encountered one of the rapists who pulled his shirt aside to show me a revolver he had at his waist as a warning to me not to support the victim. I have received numerous threatening calls over the years but I try to not let these affect my mission.

The work I do has taken a considerable toll on my health due to stress and feelings of hopelessness at the scale of problems I encounter. However I find strength in each case I take on on behalf of those who trust WAR and ask us for help. I gain renewed hope when I see survivors progress and are empowered to move beyond their traumatic experiences and build a positive future for themselves.  This makes my work at WAR worthwhile to me, despite the numerous obstacles presented. I also feel blessed to have parents and siblings who have always supported my passion for my work and have given me unwavering support in my personal life when I was, myself, facing abuse.

4. What should the government of Pakistan do to effectively end sexual violence against women and girls?
The government needs to understand and prioritize sexual violence as the large-scale problem that it is. What is needed is a commitment by the government to examine the issues and gaps in the legal and administrative system to address such violations, as well as the obstacles faced by women and girls in accessing the system. They should improve the rape laws, and add provisions addressing incest.

In addition, court procedures must be made victim-friendly so that victims are not harassed during cross examinations, child witnesses are separated from the accused in proceedings, sexual violence trials are finished within a specific time frame, et cetera.  The police who investigate sex crimes and the medical examiners who conduct forensic examinations in such cases need to be specially trained on sexual violence according to international standards.

Most importantly, a lot of work has to be done to prevent sexual violence from occurring, through awareness-raising, sensitization, and a focus on empowering girls through rights education. Better services should be provided to victims, and there must be accountability and transparency in the work of service providers.

The situation in Pakistan is steadily improving for women. We have a vibrant civil society and there are a large number of women’s organizations working toward the furtherance of women’s rights in Pakistan. Nearly 22% of parliamentarians including the Speaker of the National Assembly are female. A number of progressive bills have been recently passed such as the Protection of Women’s Act 2006, the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace 2010 and the Acid Crime and Acid Control 2010 bill.  We have had as our leader Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim state, and recently we have elected our first female foreign minister. Positive trends such as these give me hope for the future and I know that despite all the road blocks we encounter in our work, we are making a difference for women and girls in Pakistan.

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For more information about Ms. Humayun’s organization please visit