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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 15:24 GMT
Trauma of Pakistan's rape victims
By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Islamabad

Women in Pakistan
Whoever commits the crime, it's always women who pay

Sixteen-year-old Naseema is trying to make sense of her world: it changed forever the day she was snatched by a gang of men in her village.

She averts her eyes and twists her clothes with nervous hands.

Some of them raped her, she says, then they threw her naked into the street.

The village women covered her shame with their shawls and brought her home.

"What happened is constantly on my mind. I'm always afraid, I wake up crying."

She has taken refuge in the city of Karachi, seeking help to deal with her trauma and fear.

The public humiliation is rare. But rape is not.

In Pakistan a woman is said to be raped every two hours, and gang rapes happen every eight hours.

What makes the crime so difficult to fight is the attitude towards women.

Woman pays

Tribal customs and traditions treat them like property, to be traded or punished to settle disputes.

Relatives of the accused men have their own version of the story, and dozens have gathered to tell it in a courtyard surrounded by a collection of mud brick houses, in a small village in the province of Sindh.

They say one of their girls eloped with Naseema's cousin, a violation of tribal honour. They deny the men settled the score by raping Naseema.

And they explain how such disputes are usually dealt with: the culprit's family begs forgiveness and gives money or girls as compensation, whichever the tribal elders decide.

So, it is still the women who pay.

Rape accused in jail
Six of the accused in Naseema rape case are in jail

Such tribal customs are illegal. And recently the government amended the law, making it easier to prosecute rape.

The government has taken special notice of Naseema's case: six of the accused are behind bars, awaiting trial.

But, according to human rights activists, despite tougher laws, violent crimes against women have not decreased, and most culprits are not punished.

"When we started off in the late 1980s and early 90s the slogan was break the silence, because nobody was talking about the issue of rape," says Nasreen Siddiqi, who is with a group called War Against Rape.

Power of education

"Now there's a lot of awareness and talk, but very little has changed in terms of attitudes, in terms of state support to the survivors, and in terms of getting justice for the survivors."

There is some change though.

One victim fought back by building a school for girls in her village. Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped five years ago, on the orders of a traditional village council.

She has yet to get justice in the courts, but has become a symbol of resistance for a new generation of Pakistani women.

Illiterate herself, she saw that power lay in education.

School run by Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai has fought back by building a school for girls

Today 350 little girls bend over books and carefully copy their letters, tousled hair peeking out from under their scarves, smudged faces puckered in concentration.

Some of them sit at desks lined up in the open air. A bigger school is under construction.

"When I used to go to the police station after the rape, the illiterate men and women of the village would try to stop me," says Mukhtar Mai.

"But educated people who came from outside would encourage me. So I think many of the school girls will be able to stand up for themselves, and will know the difference between right and wrong."

The case of Mukhtar Mai did rouse public support for amendments to the rape laws.

The lesson these girls must learn is clear: laws may help, but the change comes when women take action themselves.

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