He is a normal-looking person, leading a seemingly normal life. His eyes are not crazed. He is not unkempt. He has a job and has normal social interactions. There is no apparent sign of a mental disorder. Yet a dark secret lurks behind the shadows — he is a child sexual abuser. There is no formulaic profile that fits a perpetrator of child sexual abuse. There is no way even an adult can identify him or her, leave alone a child. Seven-year-old Zainab of Kasur fell prey to one such felon whose crime remained invisible till Zainab was found, albeit too late.
As Pakistan grapples in the wake of this shocking incident, it is time to raise awareness not just about the crime but also about the criminal who is often imperceptible.
“There is no single profile for a perpetrator of child sexual abuse because not every child sexual abuser is a pedophile. Pedophilia is a disorder and a specific sexual preference; it is a sickness,” says Dr Asha Bedar, clinical psychologist, trainer and researcher, who has worked extensively with cases of child sexual abuse.
In her professional experience, Bedar has seen that many perpetrators are not pedophiles. “They can be very seemingly normal and functional people who have no diagnosed mental illness. They can be respected members of the society. They can be popular in social circles, hard to detect and harder to believe to be sexual predators of children. This makes it doubly tough for children to identify them as well.”
About pedophiles, Dr Uroosa Talib, Psychiatrist and Head of Medical Services, Karwan-e-Hayat Hospital, says that they are not recognisable by appearance, speech or demeanour. “To get to the child, they develop a step by step plan. They first observe how they can build a rapport with the child. These are sharp, brutal, cruel people who will go to any length to get what they want.”
Among the celebrities who have courageously spoken up about being survivors of child sexual abuse is female actor, Nadia Jamil, who has used the platform of social media to draw attention to the issue, and toward other victims like Kainat Batool.
Jamil echoes the view of experts that there is no set profile of such a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, or a rapist. “Any man could potentially sexually abuse or molest a child. Rich men have raped and will. Poor men have raped and will. Literate and illiterate men have raped and will. Until you deal with violent and domineering stereotypes created by patriarchy, men will continue to abuse,” she says, sharing her views with TNS.
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“Pedophilia is a disease. True pedophiles are attracted sexually to pre-pubescent children in general. The urges and reasons behind the act of abuse may be different between a pedophile and non-pedophile abuser but the danger is the same — being aroused by a child,” she says, adding that not all abusers are men.
Dr Talib says the commonest emotional trauma that leads to personality disorders is child sexual abuse, even if the impact remains only as a suppressed memory or is clouded by denial. “This is one of the most difficult traumas to ever get over. The victims, in turn, can become perpetrators, and often use sex for power. Their morality changes.”
Earlier this week, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) sent recommendations to the State, as well as to the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW); one of these is to conduct psychological and psychiatric evaluations of those convicted of sexual abuse and rape, including of minors.
Bedar also says that research shows that the numbers of girls and boys sexually abused is almost the same. “But due to years of social conditioning boys internalise the idea that they can protect themselves; they do not want to accept their vulnerability. Gender dynamics and abuse have a very strong connection,” she says, adding that socially generated ideas of masculinity make the boys think that ‘if I can’t be a victim than I must have been a part of it’.
Thus, many male victims grow up telling themselves that they must have consented to it, especially if the abuser was a woman. “Boys are also more vulnerable in some ways as they are outdoors more often and parents allow sons to be with strangers like drivers or helpers more readily compared to daughters.”
Evidence suggests that child sexual abuse and rape is linked to gender-based violence in general. “Strong gender role socialisation, power dynamics, myths about gender and rape, lack of strong sanctions and strong male peer support for masculinity and role modelling” are some of the dynamics Bedar feels need to be looked into.
Experts agree that the core to the solution is making the children more aware but parents are a big part of this equation. “Parents need to have a relationship and connectedness with their children that their child can come and share not just successes but also failures, so that if anything like this happens that makes the child feel embarrassed, he or she can still share it with their parents and their parents believe them,” says Dr Talib. “Giving a child the concept of religious boundaries can actually work positively. This also helps them understand the concept of good and bad touch with keeping religious sensitivities in mind. Teach your children rights over their self and the dignity of their bodies.”
Jamil says she would be wary of strange men paying too much attention to a child. “We have to teach our children to be vigilant and to protect themselves and others. Warn them. Keep an eye on them and pray hard. And we have to change the way we educate ourselves and our kids. Till the state invests in the right people…it’s up to us. One child at a time. We cannot afford to stop or give up. We will not give up.”