Pakistan Reader# 224, 8 October 2021
Poverty, taboos, societal norms, and a weak State response fuel the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the countryApoorva Sudhakar
On 13 September, Dawn reported that a child abuse gang had been busted in Sahiwal; the suspects were arrested on the grounds of having raped minors aged between 12 and 14 years, for three years. The police also recovered videos of the gangsters assaulting the children they had lured from a bus stand.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case of child abuse rings, especially sexual abuse. According to NGO Sahil, which releases the annual “Cruel Numbers” report, 2,960, cases of child abuse were reported from Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir in 2020; of this, 1,510 girls and 1,450 boys were sexually exploited. The statistics includes instances of abductions, sodomy, gang sodomy, rape, gang rape, and cases of those children who were murdered after being sexually assaulted. Of the 2,960 cases, the abuser was a known person in 1,579 cases. Further, the report provides the age breakdown outlining that 1,020 of the child victims were aged between 11-15, followed by 678 children in the 6-10 years age group. Meanwhile, Punjab recorded the highest number with 1,707 cases, followed by Sindh (861), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (215), Islamabad (102), and Balochistan (53). These figures indicate a four per cent increase in cases of child abuse from the 2,846 cases in 2019. The State of Human Rights in 2018 report also quotes figures provided by Sahil, which says that in the first six months of 2018, 2,322 cases of child sexual abuse were reported.
Pakistan’s Hidden Shame: An eye opener
In 2014, a documentary titled “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame” was premiered, which captured the gravity of child sexual abuse, also known as bacha bazi, in the country through the situation in Peshawar. The documentary is set on the streets of Peshawar and outlines the vulnerability of children living on the streets engaged in odd jobs like picking trash for recycling. They sleep near bus depots and are easy prey for truck drivers commuting to and from Afghanistan.
Truck and bus drivers, bus cleaners and helpers openly admit to using boys as young as eight years old and justify the deed by attributing it to “majboori” or helplessness. Without a flinch in the eye, a man admits to have raped 10 to 12 boys out of this so-called helplessness. Many a times, the victims turn to drug use to escape the emotional trauma inflicted through the abuse and many a times, the abuse becomes a source of easy income for them; in short, the children willingly enter into prostitution without an idea about the consequences. Naeem, through whom the documentary weaves the story - and is also a victim - says he “sold his body” when he was eight and a half years old. In the long run, the abused children grow up to be the abusers, as was the case of Naeem.
The documentary estimates that nine out of ten children are victims to this sort of pedophilia in Peshawar; and one in ten victims is usually killed by the perpetrator, out of fear and shame. If expounded correctly, the figure could run into millions, across Pakistan. In the documentary, Imran Khan, now the country’s Prime Minister, says, “It's one of the most sad and shameful aspects of our society. I am totally embarrassed by this and that we have not really been able to protect them.” He admits to having known the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the society but says he was unaware of the scale at which it was taking place.
Unfortunately, seven years down the line, the situation does not seem to have changed significantly.
Factors fueling the abuse
First, poverty. Dr. Huma and Dr. Hafsa, in Daily Times, explain that a large percentage of targets belong to the lower socio-economic background, and are usually engaged in child labour, including as domestic help. They explain that such jobs pave the way for a master and slave attitude wherein the perpetrator sees the child as a commodity bought for a meagre amount of money.
Second, the emphasis on gender divisions and roles. In the documentary mentioned in the previous section, one of the perpetrators says “using” children or boys is an easier way to channelise pent up frustration. He emphasises on societal views on women, maintaining that they should be kept at home and should be a pious woman; therefore, he says it is easier to take a boy out without drawing any attention or suspicion.
Third, the pattern of silence. Out of fear and shame, most children prefer to hide instances of being abused from their parents or caregivers. It also stems from victim blaming, as was evident in the documentary wherein Naeem’s brother says, bad things happen to bad people. Similarly, the societal emphasis on girls being the bearers of the respect of a family, often deter victims from speaking out; the families too try to keep such incidents a secret. Boys, on the other hand, sometimes hide such abuses as they are conditioned by toxic masculinity.
Fourth, lack of understanding the gravity of the problem. The number of cases is usually underestimated and underreported. Sahil, for example, compiles the numbers based on reports in the national and regional papers. This just brings out the tip of the iceberg, thereby failing to bring out the prevalence of the problem.
Fifth, inefficient police investigation. In 2017, a three-member committee set up by the National Commission of Human Rights (NHCR) investigated into the child abuse cases between 2015 and 2017 in Kasur. The committee concluded that several girls who had been raped and murdered could have been saved if the police had taken the matter seriously. The News International explains that a common criticism regarding police investigation is that it is inefficient and does not have a proper follow-up, thereby leading to weak prosecution and lesser conviction rates. For example, between January 2014 and June 2018, only 79 cases of child abuse in Islamabad were registered; of this, only four were convicted.
State response to child abuse
In 2018, the Ministry of Human Rights initiated a draft action plan to bring an end to child abuse and deals with “prevention, protection, recovery, reintegration and participation in society.” In 2019, Shireen Mazari acknowledged that child abuse is a major problem in Pakistan; she attributed the problem to mindset of the people and lack of awareness. The same year, the first child protection court was established in KP, to look into cases of “maltreatment, violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect.”
In January 2020, the National Assembly passed the Zainab Alert, Recovery and Response Bill, 2019. It provides for life imprisonment for those convicted of child abuse and killing, along with a Rs 1 million fine. It also provides for a helpline to report missing children. In 2021, four more child protection courts were inaugurated in Peshawar, Kohat, Swat, Bannu and DI Khan, in addition to those operating in other parts of KP.
Despite these measures, conviction rates remain low, thereby deterring people from approaching the legal system. In July, women Members of the National Assembly demanded that rapists be hanged in public to bring down instances of abuse against women and children. However, such drastic measures will not address the root causes leading to abuse. Therefore, a holistic approach to address inequalities, tolerance to violence, need to be incorporated.
“Cruel Numbers 2020,” Sahil, 2021
“2,960 children sexually abused in 2020: report,” The News International, 1 June 2021
Shafiq Butt, “Child abuse gang smashed in Sahiwal,” Dawn, 13 September 2021
“Pakistan’s Hidden Shame: Documentary reveals horrors of pedophilia in K-P,” Dawn, 3 September 2014
Umar Hussain, “Growing sexual child abuse in Pakistan,” Daily Times, 11 January 2020
Dr Huma and Dr Hafsa, “Tackling child abuse,” Daily Times, 15 June 2020
Syed Irfan Raza, "Women MNAs demand public hanging of rapists,” Dawn, 31 July 2021
Syed Irfan Raza, “Child protection bill passed on Zainab’s death anniversary,” Dawn, 11 July 2020
“Child abuse,” Dawn, 12 April 2021
“State of Human Rights in 2018,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Government of Pakistan, March 2019
“Ministry of Human Rights prepares action plan to end child abuse,” Pakistan Today, 7 November 2018
“Pakistan's Hidden Shame,” Clover Films, YouTube, 31 July 2017
Shabana Mahfooz, “The legacy of child abuse,” The News International, 10 February 2019
“Child abuse major problem: Mazari,” Dawn, 28 September 2019
Waseem Ahmad Shah, “KP gets first child protection court,” Dawn, 17 March 2019