Dawn Editorial 26 November 2020

Curbing rape

THE PTI government has evidently decided there is no time to lose in bringing about legislation to curb the incidence of rape in the country. To that end, the federal cabinet in a meeting chaired by the prime minister on Tuesday approved in principle two anti-rape ordinances. These expand the definition of rape and incorporate within it the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘gang-rape’, and widen the scope of punishment to include chemical castration. The proposed legislation also bans the humiliating and controversial two-finger test in rape cases, and mandates the establishment of rape crisis centres and special courts to try alleged perpetrators.
A series of bone-chilling rape cases of late have left the public shaken and the government scrambling to appear proactive. There was, for example, the gang rape late one night in September of a woman in front of her children while they were stranded in their stalled car on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway. Earlier this month, a mother and her minor daughter were raped over two days in Kashmore, Sindh, an incident particularly horrific in its details.
The law can often do with improvements to close loopholes, remove ambiguities etc, all with the objective of enabling justice to be done. Thus the expansion of the currently narrow definition of rape in terms of what acts constitute this crime and who can be defined as victims is an appropriate step. However, the proposal of chemical castration is problematic, especially on practical grounds.
The procedure is employed in several countries and some parts of the US to reduce recidivism rates, but it is no ‘quick fix’. Offered to paedophiles as an option in exchange for more lenient prison sentences or as a condition of parole, the treatment — which is not inexpensive — is only effective while it is continued. Several rights’ advocates also contend that castration of rapists is based on a misunderstanding of the crime of rape, which is about power — not sexual gratification. Rather than the severity of punishment, which may satisfy populist objectives, the best deterrent is certainty of punishment, and for that the quality of investigation must be improved.
Mercifully, the cabinet in Tuesday’s meeting decided against hanging rapists publicly, as advocated by some lawmakers. While Dawn is opposed to capital punishment in any form, it can be argued that the death penalty as punishment for rape can put victims at greater risk of being silenced forever by their attackers. Moreover, Pakistan is increasingly drifting away from its claim upon partially lifting the moratorium on capital punishment in December 2014 that it would apply it only to those convicted of terrorism. Finally, one must question why the government is planning more legislation by ordinance. The proposed legal changes should go through the normal, democratic procedure of being tabled in parliament, debated and then enacted as law. This expediency serves no purpose.



Covid messaging

THE repeated Covid-19 warnings from the NCOC point to a dangerous future, yet many politicians, including those in government, and citizens are refusing to take the threat seriously. Planning Minister Asad Umar this week predicted that a failure to take preventive measures may thrust the country towards the situation witnessed in June, when hospitals were overwhelmed with infected patients. With new Covid-19 cases crossing 3,000 and deaths almost 60 in a 24-hour period, it appears that we are on track to a crippling new peak — one that may well surpass the hospitalisations, infections and deaths of the first wave which hit in the summer months. In several countries, the beginning of winter has brought a renewed challenge as Covid-19 cases spread faster. In Pakistan, the winter months trigger respiratory illnesses due to smog and high levels of pollution, a phenomenon that will further complicate the Covid-19 picture.
There are certain timely steps that have been taken by the authorities to address the problem of rising cases, one of which is school closure as a result of the significant spread of the virus in educational institutes. However, the difficult decisions cannot stop there if this devil-may-care attitude on the part of our authorities and even the general public continues. The Sindh government for instance, which had an exemplary Covid-19 response in the first wave, has this time around been utterly irresponsible. In going ahead with their participation in PDM rallies and preparing to observe their foundation day at a public meeting in Multan next week, their approach at this critical time shows a tremendously disappointing shift from the earlier unequivocal and science-led strategy. The federal government, too, despite the prime minister’s warnings to the public, has failed to deliver an effective message about Covid-19 to citizens, who are happy to go about life without face coverings and attending large gatherings. Neither have doctors and law-enforcement officials issued the kind of public warnings and projections we saw in the first wave, despite the daily Covid-19 stats painting a stark picture. Overall, energy across the board is low even though the circumstances demand a robust and committed message. Prolonged carelessness has forced other countries into a lockdown, which has hurt livelihoods and damaged schooling and mental health, to save the healthcare system from total collapse. If we continue down this dark path, Pakistan, too, will have no choice but to shut down.



Unchanged interest rate

THE decision taken by the State Bank of Pakistan to continue an accommodative monetary policy by keeping its policy rate unchanged at 7pc comes as no surprise. It is in line with market expectations. The bank believes that inflation will remain within 7pc to 9pc and notes that domestic economic recovery has gradually gained traction (since July) in line with growth projections of slightly above 2pc for the present fiscal year. Business confidence has improved. Nevertheless, it warns, there are considerable risks to the outlook, for instance, the resurgence of Covid-19 infections. Still, according to the bank’s monetary policy statement, the risks to the outlook for both “growth and inflation appear balanced for policymakers”.
By keeping the real interest rates in negative territory despite CPI inflation of around 9pc during the last two months, the bank has clearly signalled its willingness to continue divergence from its previous ‘forward-looking’ policy stance until it cannot. Aside from a better economic outlook and range-bound inflationary projections, the recent improvements in the current account and on the fiscal side, as well as the suspension of the loan deal with the IMF since February, are also helping the bank resist the temptation of raising the policy rate. It is, therefore, safe to assume that the State Bank will not increase the cost of credit for the private sector or the government, the single largest customer of commercial banks, until the Covid-19 challenge is over. The sharp reduction in the interest rate has proved perhaps to be the most effective measure among a raft of pro-growth actions implemented by both bank and government in the wake of the pandemic in reviving economic activities and encouraging investment ever since the lockdown restrictions were lifted. Even the improvement on the fiscal side is due to lower interest rates to a large extent, allowing the government to jack up its spending on development schemes. The reversal of the policy stance in the near- to medium-term could easily shatter the current growth momentum.





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