Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to introduce the death penalty for rape of minors. This is up from the maximum sentence of life imprisonment under existing laws. The rising reports of child molestation, rape and abuse across the country that prompted this are a cause for concern for all of us. But quick solutions like increased penalties are unlikely to give us the solutions we need. What is needed is to view the issue of child abuse in its wider context. A preventive, rather than retributive approach is needed. This requires a larger, long-term conversation in society about our approaches to sexual conduct. This also necessitates we reflect on how women are treated in our society.

In the past month alone, three different reports of rape have made headlines in Pakistan. First, the rape of a 15-year-old girl in Karachi. Her mother named the accused in a video on social media, but a subsequent video of the accused, the mother and the survivor in a car caused more outrage than the rape itself. People questioned the veracity of the rape claim, given the relationship between the accused and the mother despite a medico-legal exam of the rape survivor. How a relationship between the mother and the accused negates the minor’s rape was a logical jump ignored by most people.

As Ramzan wore on, a woman in Rawalpindi lodged an FIR stating that was picked by police officers as she went for sehri with a friend, and raped by three police officers and a civilian in a plain police vehicle. She was later dropped off at her hostel with the warning to not speak up about the incident. Pakistan was not as angry about this custodial rape. We wondered why she was even outside the house at 2 am. No woman deserves protection at this hour of the night, we assume. The Police, however, sprang into action in arresting the accused. Latest reports, however, suggest that the survivor is being pressured and the investigation slowed.

This case was quickly overshadowed by the reports of the alleged rape and murder of a 10-year old child in Islamabad. Local police station had delayed registering a missing person report on complaint of her father. Pakistan was outraged. We were rightly haunted by the memories of the rape and murder of Zainab in 2018. It was in this context that the Prime Minister sought to introduce the death penalty for rape of minors.

A chilling pattern emerges from the three examples outlined above. Pakistan is only ever outraged when children are raped, not when adult women are. When we learn of the rape of adult women, we want to know what she was wearing, who she was with, why was she where she was and what her mother does. We look for every excuse to discredit her claim. Should the survivor be a teenager, like the survivor in Karachi was, we still treat her suspiciously. Disregarding her age, we want her to explain how did she invite this rape. At times like these, a large majority of us forget that rape only refers to sexual intercourse without someone’s consent or against their will. Clothes, conduct or past relationships have no bearing on whether sexual intercourse was consensual. We also forget that around the world, women and children are raped most often by people already known to the survivor. Rape is rarely ever so violence as to leave visible marks of violence. We forget that a minor, aged under 16, is unlikely to understand how she is being groomed for rape. That is why sex with minors is treated as statutory rape; minors are legally incapable of giving consent.

This attitude should worry us. This is not simply a social attitude but one that is translated to law and policy as well. A 2015 study for the National Commission of Status of Women that I was part of found that sentences for rape of adult women or teenagers are more likely to be reduced at appeal than sentences for rape of small children. Judges share the moral outrage at the rape of children – and lack it when teenage and adult women are raped. In some reported cases, girls as young as 12 are framed as temptresses. Police and medico-legal doctors too, view women not having the ‘right demeanour’ for a rape survivor as suspicious. If she is not absolutely shell shocked, unable to understand questions put to her, or not be in the right clothes at the right time, police and doctors are likely to assume she is lying.

In this context, where society views women with infinite suspiciousness, where young girls are sexualised from a very early age, incidences of rape or molestation of small children will continue to arise. Attitudes like these make it harder for survivors of any age to step forward. No amount of strict punishment or even public punishment will discourage this. A strict punishment comes after a rape has occurred – it does nothing to prevent it. It especially does nothing to encourage survivors to speak up or report their sexual abuse.

What is needed is a preventive approach. Pakistani society needs to have a larger conversation about its attitudes to sex – how do we enable it and how do we discourage survivors, adult and minor alike, from stepping forward? How do we overcome the stigma and shame attached to our bodies? What institutional hurdles in investigation and prosecution obstruct successful reporting of these crimes? Movements around the world have advocated both social change along with legal change in order to bring about lasting change on harassment and sexual crimes. This comes from a recognition that there is no strict bar between the social and legal.

"It is encouraging that such conversations are already happening in Pakistan. Children are being taught to distinguish between good touch and bad touch by their parents. Feminist groups speak up and highlight the baseless character assassinations of women who report abuse and rape. Even more encouragingly, a recent press conference held by Zindagi Trust, run by ex-pop star Shehzad Roy, raised the need for teaching comprehensive Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) in schools. LSBE teaches children how to identify and prevent abuse and harassment, in addition to creating awareness about legal and gender rights of children and minors, disease, hygience and nutrition."