The recent horrifying rape and murder case of a seven year old girl, Zainab Ansari, in Kasur, whose body was dumped in a pile of garbage, is not an isolated incident; it has in fact highlighted the plight of countless other children that have been subjected to sexual abuse. According to Sahil, a non-governmental organization working on child protection with a special focus on sexual abuse, an average of 11 cases of abuse are reported from across the country on a daily basis. A total of 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported from different parts of the country only in the first six months of 2017, according to the latest numbers released by Sahil. In Kasur alone, the rape and murder of 12 minor girls has been reported in the last twelve months. Police identified a gang of child sex abusers in the same district in August 2015, who were behind a massive child abuse and extortion scandal, involving at least 280 children who were filmed while being sexually abused by a gang of men. The children’s families were blackmailed into silence by the same men, by threatening to release the videos if they spoke up.
This rape and brutal murder of young Zainab has jolted the country. People across various sections of the society have not only condemned the heinous crime, but they have also demanded to bring the culprits to justice in a manner that effectively discourages the repetition of the crime. However, it has yet to be seen as to how far the present discourse goes to provide help to the victims of child sexual abuse, and more importantly, its role in establishing an institutional mechanism for child protection. Unfortunately, much of the discussion continues to be marred by victim shaming, incitement to violence, political point scoring and reverting to the traditional conservative values attributed to religiosity for finding a solution to the epidemic of paedophilia in Pakistan. In the emotional frenzy built up by electronic media, there have been loud calls for public execution of the accused persons without realising that such practices can only lead to brutalising an already belligerent society.
Moreover, it is important to understand and recognise the significance of a due process, as there can be no shortcuts to justice; hence the lack of impunity and certainty of punishment is a bigger deterrence than the ferocity of it. A case like Zainab’s, which has resulted in public outrage on a large scale, could be a turning point for a country. For example, when the 2012 gruesome gang rape case of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi took place, the entire country took to the streets, demanding justice for the young woman, which ultimately culminated in some major amendments in the Indian Legal System. Unfortunately in Pakistan, the present debate about child sexual abuse, instead of moving towards any meaningful legal or socio-cultural reform, is getting bogged down in high rhetoric to discredit political foes.
Child sexual abuse is a serious menace that plagues our society, and the culture of impunity, particularly when it comes to the religious right, helps the perpetrators get away with the most brutal and horrendous of crimes. There have been countless cases of rape and abuse by the so-called “faith healers” in Pakistan, and what goes on in mosques and madrassahs is open knowledge, but both the state and society have turned a blind eye towards it, allowing sexual violence against young children to spread. And while cases of brutal murders and rapes of minors are often highlighted, domestic sexual abuse of children, although a taboo subject in the country, is also quite rampant according to rights activists.
Social media and the internet boom has played an important role in bringing such cases to the fore, which were otherwise considered taboo in the past. Particularly, in most of the rural areas of the country, cases of rape and sexual violence against women and children are brushed under the carpet either by force, or by offering a monetary compensation to the victim’s family; consequently, most of the cases go unreported. The fact that in order to seek justice, people have to resort to social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter is quite troublesome and renders the state apparatus quite useless. Public outrage in some instances, which usually culminates in a demand for a brutal punishment, does not help either in terms of addressing the root cause of the issue, or finding a sustainable solution of having access to reasonable justice. Although there is a need to spread awareness and introduce some form of basic sex education through formal and informal means of education, the larger issue remains that providing an accessible framework is a necessity, within which issues of sexual violence can be addressed and legally combatted. Brazen failure of the justice system is evident from two prominent cases in 2015, in Kasur (Punjab) and Nazwakaly, Mingora (Khyber Pukhtunkhwa) where pornography rings were uncovered, the perpetrators arrested, only to be released on bail shortly afterwards (HRCP report).
Although Pakistan has ratified all of the UN Human Rights Conventions – and in October 2017, was elected by the UN General Assembly to serve on the Human Rights Council as of 1 January 2018 – but due to its weak capacity for implementation and giving it low priority, the country has not been able to translate legal safeguards into tangible improvement on the ground. The Committee on the Rights of the Child in its Concluding Observations, acknowledged some of the initiatives taken by the Government despite the challenges that it faces, but also expressed serious concerns with regard to children’s rights, and the prevalence of violence against children. The Government in response highlighted a number of legislative and institutional initiatives taken to improve the rights of children; including recent laws directly aimed at addressing children’s rights like the Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act (2015) and the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act (2016) against sexual abuse exploitation, trafficking and child pornography. It is important that Pakistan follows-up on the recommendations presented by the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, addressing the deficiencies identified and strengthening the overall implementation of the relevant treaty obligations.
There is a dire need to acknowledge and address the deep rooted patriarchal structure of our society, and within that context, introduce further reforms, work on the successful and effective implementation of the existing laws, and have a zero tolerance policy towards child sexual abuse, and make it an unacceptable social practice, as opposed to taking punitive measures against the victims. Although some focus has already turned towards the issue of child rights, and there are some laws on the book, but in view of the emergence of widespread evidence about individual and organised crime against children, there is an urgent need for the state and society to revisit all the gamuts of laws, rules and procedures in order to recapture the initiative for fighting crime against children. A strong public and government response can make a big difference in protecting the lives of our children.
By: Zalla Khattak