South Asia

Pakistan rape victim Mukhtar Mai faces new injustice

Mukhtar Mai outside her school in southern Punjab, 26 April 2011
Image caption Mukhtar Mai still lives in her village, and runs a school for girls

Every day, Mukhtar Mai, a tall, gaunt woman from a tiny farming village in Pakistan's southern Punjab province, faces the trauma of what happened to her.

Nine years ago, to punish her for an affair her brother was accused of having, a tribal council ordered that she be repeatedly raped.

After the attack, she says she was paraded past scores of villagers.

It became the most infamous women's rights case in Pakistan for years.

In a country where getting convictions in violent crimes cases against women was notoriously difficult, six suspected rapists were caught, convicted and imprisoned.

It was a result that satisfied human rights groups from around the world who had been closely following the case.

But a new judgement has changed everything.

'Brought back the pain'

Pakistan's Supreme Court has decided that all but one of the men previously imprisoned for gang-raping Mukhtar Mai on the orders of tribal elders should have their convictions overturned.

Image caption Five of six men charged over the rape have been released

They have now been released.

"I'm hurt and upset," says Ms Mai. "I am going through the same things I went through in 2002. It's brought back all the pain.

"Then, it was a decision of the tribal council that made me suffer, now it's a verdict from the Pakistani courts."

Since the attack, Ms Mai, who was then illiterate, managed to start a school for girls and a women's refuge just a few hundred feet from the spot where she was raped.

She received international awards for her bravery in speaking out, and her autobiography In the Name of Honour has been sold worldwide.

But Ms Mai says the new ruling to free her attackers has crushed her.

"Yes I had civil society with me, and groups from all over the world," she says. "But only I knew what difficulties I still had to face."

She says she had to battle men from an influential local clan when most women who experienced what she did were expected to commit suicide.

"After everything, the men of powerful families are openly handing out sweets in celebration of this judgement," she says. "I was never expecting this."

She also feels threatened because the released men could now return to the village where they still have homes.

Image caption Nasreen, right, is at the refuge after being raped by her father. She is 12

"They will be close to my school," she says. "My school, employees, my family and I will be in danger."

She says that if anything happens, it will be the Supreme Court and the government of Pakistan who should be held responsible.

'Low morale'

But she also worries about those girls who have been abused, but who had taken strength from her story.

There are many girls like that at the refuge that Ms Mai now runs.

Twelve-year-old Nasreen - not her real name - arrived at the refuge less than two weeks ago.

She had been raped by her father.

Image caption There been protests against the Supreme Court verdict

She is now receiving help, but her counsellor and refuge manager, Shazia Amin, says it is hard to keep her spirits up.

"We are doing everything we can to help Nasreen," she says. "But all the girls here know what's happened in Mukhtar Mai's case.

"We're all disturbed and morale is very low."

The feeling is that if the accused in the most high-profile case of its kind here can be released in this way, then there is little hope for justice for girls like Nasreen across Pakistan.

And Ms Mai says she believes what happened to her nine years ago could still happen today.

"If a women is alone in Pakistan she will turn back from the police station, she'll be forced to keep quiet because of the laws we have, and the way women are treated," she says.

"This judgement means nothing has changed in Pakistan."

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