LAHORE: When she was sexually abused by her father, 11-year-old ‘M’ took one year to recover from the shock and share her ordeal with her mother. To her utter shock, her mother snubbed her never to repeat such rubbish. Within six months, she was married off to a distant relative.
Today, ‘M’, 24, herself has two children, and swears to protect them upon her life. “Fathers are supposed to protect, not attack,” she says. “I didn’t really understand what I had been through until I had my own children.”
Sexual abuse has many forms, and an abuser can be anyone. Mostly abusers are from victim’s circle of acquaintances.
In most cases of child sexual assaults, the victim happens to be a minor — as young as five or six years old and in some cases even younger. The abusers range from blood relations to those the victim is familiar with, such as neighbours, a teacher, or a relative.
There is no set profile of an abuser and while female abusers also exist.
In Sahil’s report ‘Cruel Numbers’, 3,002 cases of child sexual abuse took place in 2013. Out of the total assaults, in 1,474 instances an acquaintance was the perpetrator, followed by strangers (1,067 cases). Other abusers were relatives (85), neighbour (74), incest (70), and some others (110).
Of these 3,002 cases, 66.72 per cent were reported from Punjab.
As the situation of rape or sexual abuse within familiar surroundings has risen, so has the problem of these cases not being reported. Reporting child abuse, especially if it is rape, seems to threaten the very fabric of a family, as perhaps the crime itself. In many cases the reporting simply does not happen because the child does not reveal the crime.
Fear and confusion
Raana Malik, assistant professor of gender studies with the Punjab University, says sometimes if the child is too young, they cannot really understand what has happened. In many cases abuse takes the form of touching rather than rape itself. This is too confusing for the child to realise that it is wrong. Abusers often make the child feel guilty for doubting their intentions, showing that it was simply ‘love’, or, they exert constant power by literally watching over the child and ensure the secret is not revealed.
“The impact is worse than that of abuse by a stranger, because such abuse involves a breakdown of trust leaving the child vulnerable,” she says. “Though both sexes are deeply affected, usually the girl suffers more because in our society, she will end up being submissive. Boys end up as providing security to their families so they may have a chance to try and black out the conscious memories.”
Ironically, unlike ordinary sexual abuse, incest rape is seldom or never reported. Family members and caregivers do not want to hear the complaint, or even if they proceed, they are threatened by the perpetrator. If it remains unsaid and the child is young, they may grow up believing the relationship is normal. Such children have poor social interaction.
Sarah Zaman, whose legal and socio-cultural study on incest, a first of its kind, reveals many aspects. One is that socio-economic powerlessness often causes the mother to turn away from the abuse. They are afraid of being thrown out of the house, or to be left with no money. Other studies point out that victims usually have to be displaced from their places of abuse in order to report a case.
Child psychologist Nasreen Ahmed says that because the child is in easy access, is weak and vulnerable and is easily manipulated and threatened, they are susceptible to abuse within families. Drug abuse by the abuser can also be a reason. Sometimes it is exertion of power at others it is merely a sickness.
It is a myth that opportunity makes an abuser,” she says. “In fact an abuser waits for an opportunity.”
Incest cases are rejected for the judge calls the act impossible, especially if a father is involved. Many courts have not accepted that a child can tolerate prolonged abuse and not report it. But in reality it can take up to a year for a child to do so. Also in courts the appeal procedure tends to be extremely traumatic labeling the mother of the child being immoral and a liar. Sometimes this pans out well for the accused and often complainants want out of court settlements to avoid slander.
Sahil’s legal aid advisor Atif Adnan says that more than often it is unimaginable that an incest case reaches court unless the child has the support of the entire community. Usually the perpetrator is already forgiven or in case of it being the father or brother the crime is treated as a ‘mistake’. Oftentimes, potential complainants are threatened, sometimes the threat is even carried out.
In Pakistan’s legal language though, ‘incest’ does not even exist. Besides going unreported, this is another major issue that must be addressed by lawmakers, he says.
Published in Dawn, September 21th, 2014