A new law authorizing the use of chemical castration as a punishment for men convicted of rape in Pakistan has drawn criticism from medical experts and human rights activists who say the measure is a misguided and inhumane approach to tackling the pervasive issue of sexual assault. 

Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan approved the new law on November 26. The measure was included in a draft of new legislation in response to public outcry over sexual assaults following the brutal gang-rape of a woman in front of her children on a motorway near Lahore on September 9.

Pakistan has seen a rise in the number of rape cases reported across the country in recent years. According to government statistics, just 5% of the 5,000 rape cases reported annually to police result in conviction. Rights groups say most rapes are never reported in the first place.

Chemical castration — not to be confused with surgical castration, in which the testes are removed — is a procedure by which testosterone levels are reduced by hormone injections, with the aim of reducing sex drive. The treatment can last three to five years in duration.

Why it matters: 

Pakistani human rights advocates and feminists say forced chemical castration is a misguided and inhumane approach to tackling the pervasive issue of rape.

Harris Khalique, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told me in an email that “chemical castration as a punishment for rape is neither a solution nor a means of redressal for what is undeniably a heinous crime. It is not the gravity but certainty of punishment that deters crime.”

Tooba Syed, media secretary of the Women’s Democratic Front, a Pakistani socialist feminist organization, characterized the approval of chemical castration as a means for the government to avoid dealing with the root causes of its sexual assault crisis.

“Sexual violence cannot be eliminated from the society by stricter punitive punishments,” wrote Syed in an email. “It’s an issue of not recognizing women’s bodily autonomy, their right to say no and their agency. Chemical castration does not address the social norms and practices which allows patriarchal and sexual violence to prevail in a society.”

The big picture: 

Pakistan is one of a small but growing number of countries to authorize chemical castration as a punishment for sex offenders, including Indonesia, South Korea, Ukraine, the Czech Republic. Similar laws have also been passed in a handful of U.S. states. In 2019, laws authorizing forcible chemical castration for child sex offenders were passed in Alabama and Ukraine; Indonesia’s equivalent law was enacted in 2016. Pakistan’s bill goes further than most in approving the procedure for sex offenses which do not involve children.

Health experts say using this procedure as a punishment in a criminal justice context is an unscientific approach to what can be a useful medical tool.

Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on the treatment of sexual disorders, told me the treatment is effective when performed in the context of a psychiatric evaluation and with the patient’s consent. He said in a phone interview that he often receives requests for such treatments from people with pedophilic and other urges, who cannot afford or access the costly procedure.

But “to use a medical intervention in a punitive way, particularly when it doesn’t even make sense medically, is not the way in which I think things ought to be done,” said Berlin.

Berlin also cast doubt on its effectiveness in preventing repeat offenses. “There are some people who rape because they’re responding to abnormal repeated sexual cravings to engage in a course of action; that is a subgroup of rapists for whom this might be useful. There are other people, however, who rape because they lack a sense of conscience and moral responsibility. There’s no medication or surgery that’s going to instill those values,” he said.