Zainab’s murder shocked us all. What were your initial thoughts?
I had often wondered whether we as a society were regressing to a point of happy apathy in the face of national tragedy; existing in our proverbial bubbles, so jaded after hearing of one atrocity after the other – ethnic cleansing, oppression of minorities, extrajudicial killings, an ever-growing divide between conservatives and liberals (I will never forget seeing images of close to a hundred thousand men attending the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri), rape, honor killings – so jaded that we had rid ourselves of emotion and empathy.
I think Zainab’s murder burst that bubble. I was horrified reading the details of her murder; shocked, disgusted and angry. Angry that this perversion is so pervasive in our country. That no concrete steps have ever been taken to combat sexual abuse. That we have utterly failed as a nation to protect our children. As CCTV footage showed how comfortable she seemed walking beside her murderer, I was angrier thinking about what is almost a cultural norm: in our country, touching other people’s children, putting them in our laps, kissing and being physically affectionate with them is ridiculously common. How is a child supposed to know the difference between what constitutes a good touch or a bad touch? How are they supposed to know which adult to trust and whom not to? Especially given most abusers are someone known to the family.
The response of the authorities came under scrutiny. How would you judge their performance?
In a word: pitiful. Let us not forget this is the same establishment that, more than two years on, has yet to provide justice for the victims of Kasur’s child sexual abuse and pornography scandal. It’s a national embarrassment and a major human rights violation. But no, everyone is more concerned with political mudslinging, and meanwhile, it is ridiculously easy for perpetrators to silence victims of sexual abuse. Why is the law enforcement not being held accountable – how do they and our government sleep at night, I wonder. Why are they so reluctant or apathetic in the face of damning statistics: 1,764 cases of child abuse nationwide in the first six months of 2017 alone. And these are just the reported ones. I firmly believe had it not been for the national public outrage and what I’m sure they saw as a media maelstrom, Zainab would have been just another number (the twelfth murder victim in just a year in Kasur alone); her story buried as the political circus in the face of the 2018 elections raged on.
The media across the board put Zainab’s murder in sharp focus. Are you satisfied in the manner in which they responded?
I do think it was brave of the media to put singular focus on Zainab – however, in reporting cases similar to Zainab’s, like Kainat Batool’s for example, I think in their over-zealousness they might have crossed certain boundaries. I understand that we as a nation have come to a point where it takes visuals of a dead girl in a heap of garbage or another languishing in a hospital to stir our conscience, but the invasiveness needs to be curtailed. And it’s not just the media: it’s everyone sharing graphic images on social media.
The response of the general public was that of outrage. How important a role does the general public have in bringing these issues to light?
As I said before, it was public outrage that awakened our government and authorities from their slumber. Mind you, this is not a responsibility the public should have to bear, and I shudder to think how this case might also have been swept under the rug (like so many before it) had it not been for the immense media and public pressure. I think it has come to a point where we have to take charge and hold our elected bodies accountable for doing their jobs. We often wonder if one person can make a difference. The answer is yes. All you have to do is care enough, and raise your voice.
If you had it your way, how would you address sexual abuse in Pakistan?
We need concrete safeguards for our children: I think workshops need to be conducted with parents nationwide (perhaps school programs?) so that they recognize signs of abuse, and are made aware – through literature, through meetings with child psychologists & experts – as to the many ways abuse can be prevented. I think children need to be educated about their rights, the power of saying ‘no’; they should be taught about their bodies and the concept of personal boundaries. I would fast track the formation of a Child Rights Commission. Educational videos, programs, child-friendly television shows: using mass media to empower children. And finally, swift justice to the perpetrators convicted of child abuse.