Pakistan has a poor record when it comes to women’s rights; especially a high rate of gender-based violence (GBV). This has been attributed to the lack of education, lack of awareness, poverty, and rampant misogyny in the country. However, the recent increase in GBV also highlights the state’s inability to protect its citizens. Pakistan was ranked 153rd out of 156 nations by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021 index; it was placed 151st out of 153 in 2020. According to Human Rights Commission Pakistan’s (HRCP) recent report, in Pakistan, at least 11 rape cases are reported daily with over 22,000 such incidents reported to police in the last six years (2015-21). Instead of a decline in the number of cases, there has been a sharp rise, with an overall conviction rate of less than one percent. “Only 77 accused of the 22,000 cases were found to be convicted and the conviction rate is around 0.3 per cent,” noted the report. Moreover, assaults and sexual abuse of children have surged by nearly a third in the country last year. The Sahil organization, a group that tracks child sexual abuse and works on child protection programs, published a report titled “Cruel Numbers”, which states that there were 3,852 cases of child sexual abuse in 2021 in Pakistan. The majority of those committing the assaults were family acquaintances or otherwise known to the children, said the report. When questioned about possible reasons for the increase in GBV in the country, clinical psychologist, psychopathologist and psychotherapist, Akchah Taj, explains, “It is mainly because of cognitive dissonance that these criminal acts are increasing in our country: we are raised with the idea that women and children need to be controlled, that others have authority and control over them.” “We live in a patriarchal model where the male figure is in charge of taking care of finances. Because of the financial support that the male figure provides to the family, he thinks, and society justifies the fact that he can emotionally, physically, psychologically and sexually abuse those for whom he is earning. Financial support is used as a currency to explain and allow abusive and aggressive behavior.” Mumtaz Mughal, the Director of Programs at Aurat Foundation provides another reason for the recent proliferation in sexual violence, stating, “Domestic violence has increased due to economic reasons and recent inflation after Covid. Men were forced to stay at home instead of going to work and thus, many took out their frustration on their wives and children.” In order to combat the sharp rise in sexual harassment cases, the federal government passed two anti-rape ordinances – the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Ordinance 2020 and the Pakistan Penal Code (Amendment) Ordinance 2020. These expanded the definition of rape, included harsher punishments for perpetrators, and called for the establishment of special courts and rape crisis centers. Moreover, it was recently announced that the authorities are planning on introducing a set of legislations in Punjab to make punishments stricter for rape and set up a dedicated helpful for victims. However, despite the toughening of anti-rape laws, many activists say Pakistan continues to fail its women, perhaps due to the lack of implementation of legislation. Although policies and laws are in place, they are not acted upon and perpetrators rarely face consequences. Taj elaborates, stating, “Humans need boundaries and to understand that actions lead to consequences. If doing something bad does not lead to punishment, regardless of the policies in place, then there is no reason not to engage in such an act.” Mughal highlights the lack of budget as a major cause of the lack of implementation of legislation. “The policies that have been developed are not backed up by budgetary allocations,” Mughal expands. “The lack of outreach of sexual harassment policies and schemes is minimal for this very reason. They don’t have the budget to form inquiry committees or train them adequately,” she states. Tahira Habib, member of the Senior Management for Complaints and Outreach at the Human Rights Commission Pakistan, goes one step further, stating, “Lack of implementation of laws is a great issue,” she starts. “But an issue of equal, if not greater, magnitude is the lack of awareness in our society. Although law-making is certainly required and is a step in the right direction, if the victims in society, at large, are not aware of them, they serve no purpose.” The lack of sensitization in the system was also highlighted by Habib as she stated, “Law enforcement agencies often exploit gender-based violence cases. Gender based violence courts in Punjab do not take domestic violence cases. First respondent police officers also tell victims that these issues are family matters and should be resolved within the family. There is a clear sensitization issue when it comes to our law enforcement agencies.” Valerie Khan, gender and child protection expert and CEO of Group Development Pakistan, believes the first step that must be taken to tackle the issue is conducting actionable research. “The increase in the rates of reported cases of GBV — is it due to the increase in the prevalence or the increase in reporting, or is it a mixture of both?” She emphasizes that these are essential questions that we must answer in order to design the responses and prevention strategies accordingly. We also need to examine what indicators such as the response against GBV cases tell us. “Do we have more FIRs being registered? Do we have more arrests? Do we have more convictions? And do we have more convictions as a result of fair trials?” she questions. When asked about steps to be taken to combat the rise in harassment cases in the country, clinical psychologist Taj offers, “Everything has to start from an early age and in the educative system, with children and preteenagers – teaching them values, equality, informing them about their rights. Not only do we need to create awareness campaigns in school, we need to implement what we promote in our actual behavior. The results will be progressive and gradual but it is not impossible.” Similarly, Valerie Khan states, “We need to have cognitive, gender and culture sensitive mass awareness campaigns. Campaigns that can reach out to far flung areas – which means that everything should not be done digitally or through social media – we also need to have awareness being spread through local and community-based structures and vectors.” She elaborates by explaining that while it is important to have appropriate response mechanisms, the prevention strategy must be the first focus. “Most of the perpetrators of GBV have one thing in common: they have had adverse childhood experiences, which greatly contributes to them becoming abusers. To stop the intergenerational cycle of violence, which is feeding GBV, we must guarantee early childhood intervention, and that means child protection, mental health programs, and social rehabilitation.” Habib describes a different approach, stating, “The only concrete solution to gender-based violence would be to sensitize law agencies. The reporting and redressal mechanisms in special courts should be implemented and improved upon. This, coupled with spreading awareness is the best way to tackle gender based violence. Moreover, if the state represents and involves themselves in these cases, it is only then that improvement of gender-based violence can be improved.” Gender and child protection expert, Khan, also believes we must introduce gender and culture sensitive structures to first welcome disclosure and complaints. She underscore the importance of having far more women in the justice sector. “Increasing women’s representation in the justice sector, whether it is at the police level, among the legal fraternity or within the judiciary, is essential,” she claims. Khan urges the state to develop an overall strategy to address GBV. “Such a plan is currently not in place,” she notes. “We need to develop comprehensive action plans, that need to be created in collaboration with the civil society. There are positive examples such as awareness campaigns that were done, digital media portals, the piloting of child and GBV courts, capacity building programs of justice actors, trying to increase women in the police force, piloting of gender protection units. However, unless these practices are taken by the state as an example and included in an overall action plan to be upscaled and resourced in partnership with civil society, we are not going to see a huge difference,” she warns. Hence, while many agree that there is much to be done to tackle the proliferation in GBV cases in the nation, we lack concrete action plans and implementable solutions. The authorities must develop actionable responses with clear timelines and budgets that focus on the implementation of policies that have already been established. Such initiatives, coupled with a regulatory approach to change the patriarchal mindset of our society, can go a long way in bringing about positive change.