A recently launched report by the NGO Sahil reveals that a shocking number of 2,322 child abuse cases were reported in the first six months of 2018 with more than 12 children abused per day, during the same period. The report further depicts a 32% increase in child abuse in the first six months of 2018 as compared to the reported 1,764 cases in the first half of 2017.
These figures don’t represent the true scale of the problem. Only the tip of the iceberg is being reported, and unreported cases are exponentially higher. There is no way to track all the unreported cases as the subject is shrouded in the silence of stigma. The taboo nature allows perpetrators to continue abuse with impunity, without fear of legal repercussions.
Sexual violence against women and children is endemic around the world. It is estimated that one in three women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The 2018 “End of Childhood Index” ranks Pakistan at 149 out of 174 countries, the major cause being discrimination against girls.
Street children are the most vulnerable in this regard. Evidences from various reports show that up to 90% of street children in the country are victims of sexual assault. They are exposed to violence and abuse on a daily basis and young girls are often forced into prostitution. This coupled with disease and substance abuse, forces them towards a life of crime. A documentary titled ‘Pakistan’s Hidden Shame’ reveals the sad reality of sexual abuse faced by homeless boys in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. It alleges that nine out of 10 street children in Peshawar have been victims of paedophilia. These children warrant special attention from the government, development agencies and civil society.
Furthermore, child marriage makes a significant contribution to girls’ abuse, exacerbating the already-dismal situation of child rights in Pakistan. The limited data available on the subject show that around 30% of the marriages in Pakistan fall under the child marriage category, with the highest occurrence in Sindh. Under the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, the minimum age for marriage is 18 years for boys and 16 years for girls. This inherent discrimination against young girls must be immediately removed and the punishment for anyone contracting such a marriage should be made more severe.
Legislation related to child sexual abuse remains poorly implemented and there is a lack of adequate measures to protect victims. The authorities’ ineptitude and failure to take proper action coupled with lengthy judicial process makes acquiring justice next to impossible. Additionally, victims have little to no legal representation.
There must be effective monitoring and accountability of law- enforcement agencies and setting up of preventive mechanisms for child protection at the district level. There is little or no emphasis on victim support. Often victims of such abuse are not even taken for a medical exam unless they are in a severe life-threatening state.
It is also important to bear in mind that in most cases, the abuser is a person of trust, known to the victim and his/her family. Moreover, we must believe our children when they report such abuse, instead of quieting them up due to misconstrued notions of honour or resorting to victim shaming.
Furthermore, Urdu does not have any words for terms like abuse or paedophilia which makes reporting of these crimes even harder. It is imperative that we bring this subject into the mainstream. Surveys should be adequately funded in order to ascertain the true scale of the problem.
Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people in its history. The effects of such abuse are deep and completely life altering. We cannot turn a blind eye to the deprivations and hardships affecting our poor and vulnerable children. We must ensure that our children have a proper childhood by bolstering our ability to protect them. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s mention of child abuse in his opening address gives us hope in this regard. We must fight this menace as a society to make sure no more children fall prey to such abuse. The heavy burden of small coffins must end.
By: Leena Nishtar