There is nothing special about Kasur. The streets are as wide and narrow as those across other small towns in Pakistan. The open naalas that run in front of each house in small neighbourhoods, such as Road Kot, Zainab’s neighbourhood, smell as much or as little as those in other towns. The men and women of Kasur appear as kind and evil as those across the country. And the statistics of child sexual abuse in Kasur are no higher than those across the rest of Punjab.
In fact, in a report issued by Sahil, an Islamabad-based organisation that works against child sexual abuse, Kasur does not even feature in the top-5 most vulnerable cities of Punjab, much less than of Pakistan. It is actually Muzaffargarh that has the highest reported number of child sexual abuse cases.
What does make Kasur stand out is that the city’s child sexual abuse cases, in 2015 and now again in 2018, have been highlighted by the media. The media highlighting may be a coincidence, it may be political power play, but the fact remains that child sexual abuse is widespread across the country: in madrassas, schools, factories that employ child labour, fields where children work, streets, and our homes.
Since Zainab, the media has highlighted cases all the way from Mardan to Karachi, but even before Zainab, the numbers were screaming at us, if we wanted to give them attention.
Child sexual abuse, which includes rape, sodomy and gang rape, among other crimes, tugs at our minds in two directions. On the one hand, the crime is considered ‘more’ heinous than crimes such as theft and murder because sexual crimes are personal violations. And according to Dr Asha Bedar, a Karachi-based clinical psychologist, in Pakistan child sexual abuse is considered even more serious because an extra layer is added on top of this personal violation — a layer of honour and morality — that is considered stripped when there is sexual abuse.
But on the other hand, civilians and policymakers remain almost apathetic to the issue, apart from an occasional burst of temporary national outrage which is responded to by most nominal policy changes.
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For instance, in Zainab’s wake, the Punjab and Sindh governments have created much noise about all that they will change to empower children and create awareness. Both governments have targeted schools. The Punjab government has vowed to create “awareness among people to prevent Kasur-like tragedy,” by producing material they aimed at children, parents, and teachers. The idea is that the “material related to prevention of child abuse will be made part of the school curriculum so that no one could dare exploit innocent kids.”
The assumption therein is that it is the job of the vulnerable and their caretakers to protect themselves against sexual abuse. No long-term policy change has been debated to discourage the perpetrators.
In Sindh, the PPP government is also working to introduce an awareness programme on child sexual abuse as part of the school curriculum. During the press conference held earlier this week, Bilawal Bhutto, the chairman of PPP, says this new part of the syllabus will be available immediately for children above grade 8, but then confusingly adds that “We have been working on this curriculum since 2009.” Has it taken them eight years to find the words to talk about child sexual abuse?
Barkat Ali, regional director of Sahil in Sindh, has seen no such change since 2009. “If there was a change or addition in the government school syllabus, we would’ve noticed it. A while ago, the government collaborated with the Indus Resource Centre and carried out some trainings with teachers about child sexual abuse but that’s about it,” says Ali. “Other than that, I don’t see the government working against child sexual abuse in any way.”
In his opinion, the biggest challenge to eliminating child sexual abuse in Sindh is the weak legal system. “In the rare cases that reach court, the abusers are not given the full punishment,” says Ali. This frail legal system encourages abusers to brazenly commit more crimes. The fragility of the legal system is compounded by out-of-court settlements and compromises that are made under the patriarchal gaze of the local wadera, and the blood money that is paid to bury child sexual abuse cases.
National statistics on child sexual abuse show that the crimes are highest in Punjab, followed by Sindh, Balochistan and then Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For instance, according to Sahil’s Cruel Numbers report for 2016, out of the 4,139 cases reported in Pakistan, 65 per cent were from Punjab, 24 per cent from Sindh, 4 per cent from Balochistan and 3 per cent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This does not, however, mean that the crime is more prevalent in Punjab. It could also mean that crimes in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have a much lower chance of being reported.
In Jaffarabad, Balochistan, Ghulam Rabbani, regional coordinator for Sahil, scours 11 newspapers a day to look for news about child sexual abuse. By now he has learnt that even journalists don’t talk about child sexual abuse in the language that the crime deserves. “The news report will say ‘child went missing’ and that’s the only clue I have,” says Rabbani. He will then begin investigating the case and more often than not he learns that it was a case of child sexual abuse that was reported under ‘missing child’.
“The crime is as rampant here as it is across the country and people are as unaware, the only difference is that it’s reported even less and that the provincial government does almost nothing to curb it,” says Rabbani.
So, the question remains that if we are so moved by a crime, and we are sure of its prevalence, why isn’t more being done to curb it?
Firstly, child sexual abuse is accompanied by a list of misconceptions. Take Zainab’s case. Some say it happened “because the child’s parents left her alone,” others have blamed her for “being too cute and attractive,” and then there’s those who believe that “since now more men eat haram ki kamai, more of them become darindas, and such crimes become more commonplace”.
Actually, child rape is not a crime of lust, it’s a crime of power. “The nature of the crime may be sexual but the motivation is to degrade and overpower. In our society, there are two major power imbalances: gender and age,” says Dr Bedar. Hence, male adults are given more space to assert and maintain their power.
Until there is an unlearning of patriarchal attitudes and a stripping of misconceptions, change will remain a mythical unicorn.
The second reason for our collective inaction against child sexual abuse is that no one is willing or able to talk about the human body, much less sex. If a child is not taught how to explain that someone touched his or per private parts, how will they ever convey that they were abused? By not teaching our children basic language, we take away the very tools that empower them.
At a committee meeting regarding Zainab’s rape murder in Kasur, chaired by Saba Sadiq, an MPA, and a representative of the National Commission for Human Rights Pakistan, the word ‘rape’ or ‘rapist’ were never mentioned. The room was determined to find ‘Zainab’s kaatil,’ not ‘Zainab’s rapist,’ thereby brushing under the carpet part of the crime that made them uncomfortable. In order to break taboos, difficult and complicated conversations need to be held, not just in our homes but at street corners, on televisions and especially by our members of government.
Thirdly, as pointed out by Manizeh Bano, the executive director of Sahil, the political will of the government has to be steadfast. This is required on two levels. Firstly, the process of reporting a sexual crime has to be easy and fruitful. “The state must provide free legal aid, child-friendly courts and full punishments,” says Bano.
On the second level, she says, the government has to take on the main responsibility of spreading awareness about child sexual abuse. “Non-governmental organisations can help the state, we can design materials for them, but the actual widespread work needs resources and reach that only the government has.”
There is no singular way to deal with child sexual abuse. We have to fight it at various levels and all of it must be simultaneous. We have to fight taboos, strengthen the criminal justice system, improve our knowledge, education and attitude towards sex crimes, and spread awareness. Otherwise, it’s a losing battle.