By Manzoor Ahmed
Child sexual abuse is rampant in Pakistan. The victims include both young, innocent boys and girls. The guilty often include depraved and criminal elements of the society. But in many cases, the guilty are the well-respected citizens, including the maulvis. In fact, child abuse in madrasas is so widespread that everyone knows about it but rarely does anyone in Pakistan talk about it.
The statistics are horrifying. According to an NGO working for child protection in Pakistan, Sahil, as many as 11 cases of child abuse are reported every day. The unreported cases number even more. In Kasur (Punjab), where a seven-year old girl was brutally raped and killed recently, kicking up an uproar in the country and elsewhere, more than 12 minor girls, aged five to eight, were raped in the past 12 months. Kasur, in fact, was in the spotlight when a massive child sex abuse ring was exposed in 2014 and 2015.
According to statistics compiled by Sahil, a total of 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported from across the country in the first six months of 2017 alone. In 2016, the total number of reported child abuse cases stood at a staggering 4,139, bringing the total number of children being abused in Pakistan per day to 11. The victims included 2,410 girls and 1,729 boys (41 per cent).As high as 62 per cent of these cases were reported from Punjab. Almost 100 of them were murdered, often brutally.
The rising number of child abuse in Pakistan is the result of lackadaisical response of the state, the lethargy of the media and civil society groups and fear and indifference on the part of the people in general. The Lahore High Court, hearing a petition about the recent rape and murder of a young girl, put the finger on the pulse: It observed that if the police had taken action in 2015 ? when the first case against a serial killer was reported in Kasur ? the rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab could have been prevented.
The state’s failure is starkly apparent in this case, especially when the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had uncovered a sordid tale of sexual abuse of children in Kasur during 2014-2015. The report highlighted that “The press and electronic media have reported the existence of several hundred video clips that showed scenes of sexual abuse involving almost 300 children. There are allegations by the families of the victims and local social activists,both of negligence and of collusion in concealing facts and evidence against the police, influence of local politicians to protect the accused and of intimidation of complainants and witnesses by the accused and the police.“
The report accused the political parties of either colluding with the accused or using the incident for political purposes instead of ensuring that the guilty were punished and the victims taken care of. “The team heard the complaint of several people that local politicians were pressurizing the police to downplay the occurrence. “
The silence in the civil society after the report came out was stunning-no one really bothered what happened to the young and innocent children. No political party was questioned, nor sought accountability from the government; there were no protests and not many in the media thought of finding more about these incidents, pin down the culprits and that political and police patrons.
Far deeper and widespread apathy has been towards children being abused by religious teachers. But, as newspaper Dawn said, “The power of the clerics in the country is such that the poor, whose children are being sexually assaulted and even murdered at the hands of madrasa administrators, have absolutely nowhere to go.“ An Associated Press investigation last year found that sexual abuse was “a pervasive and longstanding problem at madrasas in Pakistan… But in a culture where clerics are powerful, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public.“
The investigation exposed the complicity of the police, administration and civil society in keeping the heinous offence under wraps. Police are paid off and the judiciary settles for `forgiveness` on the part of the victims’ families rather than punishing the guilty and the public remains apathetic. Dawn said : “The middle class and the wealthy, whose children are not at the mercy of such institutions, wish to maintain the vow of silence that allows the abuse to continue; it is easier to believe that what one does not see does not exist.“
Rafiq Zakaria, an attorney who teaches constitutional law, wrote in Dawn that all that was happening “at the hands of clerics and principals and students, all flashing the cloth of faith, is indicative only of the deep moral rot that has seeped into the farthest reaches of Pakistan“.
By Manzoor Ahmed