It was not the first time that news about child sex rackets had surfaced in the media, but when I read about child prostitution in Jinnah Garden, Peshawar, it was dismaying beyond words.
I grew up in rural Punjab, where child molestation or underage sexual encounters take place behind closed doors. As an adolescent and teenager, I heard firsthand stories of these incidents.
It was later on in life, when a close friend confided in me that at the tender age of 12, he had a clandestine relationship with his aunt. He thought that he was madly in love with her and that physical contact was an extension of his feeling towards her.
Another friend recently told me that that in her high school, she was molested by her English teacher for almost two years. At the time, she considered herself in love with her teacher. Later, she believed the teacher took advantage of her.
In another case, one of my young relatives was sexually abused by two male servants who forced him to perform sexual acts with them for months. It stopped when he was able to tell this to his father.
Also read: Too common a crime: Rape of child
Sexual exploitation of children is a chronic, rampant evil that haunts our society; it reminds us that we have failed to protect our most vulnerable population, for a long time now.
It goes without saying: the government and civil society have to take up the responsibility of stopping the sexual abuse of children.
If young people are doing it in exchange for money, drugs or other benefits; most likely, at that age, they are not aware of the risks of getting involved in sexual activity with others. These acts can leave permanent scars on their psyche, while at the same time expose them to serious sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and HPV.
Because of scant and poorly managed resources and the lack of education, it may take child rights agencies and other authorities years before they set up strong mechanisms and safeguards against the different forms of abuse.
But for now, someone should at least take the lead in providing sex education to children and guiding families for the safety of their children.
Children must know that no one can touch them inappropriately or in any way that makes them uncomfortable; they must have a safe and supportive person to tell of abuse in case it happens.
Parents and teachers must be trained in listening to a child’s concern with empathy, not with anger. Parents must not leave their young children unattended.
According to data in the United States, most sexual abuse happens by male perpetrators and most of the time, the culprit is known to the family. Children of any gender are prone to be abused. It is for the parents to be vigilant and to keep checking with their children frequently about it.
The child will only open up about abuse if he is provided an environment where he feels safe to discuss such an incident.
For victims of sexual abuse, they ought to be examined medically and the police ought to be informed. All necessary steps should be taken to ensure that the perpetrator does not have access to other children as well.
Professional counseling of the children from a trained therapist is advisable to deal with emotions like shame, guilt and self-loathing.
It is normal for teenagers to indulge in some risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviours. This can lead to sexual encounters with peers. For this reason, children should be educated about the hazards and risks of being sexually active at a young age.
Child molestation should not be confused with homosexuality, which is fundamentally different. The former involves a sexual act with a much younger child who cannot legally give consent for a sexual encounter, which may very well have been forced onto them with or without their knowledge. On the other hand, homosexuality refers to a relationship between two consenting adults who have the same sex.
In recent years, documentaries movies like These Birds Walk and Pakistan’s Hidden Shame have successfully highlighted how runaway kids and homeless people in general are vulnerable to different forms of abuse, particularly sexual abuse.
Reham Khan recently became ambassador for street children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to better protect them from exploitation. Similar initiatives must be taken in other provinces to save these children.
Police patrolling and neighbourhood watches could be helpful if some places, such as Jinnah Garden, are known in particular to be linked with sexual abuse involving children.
There is no shame in talking about sex education as a means of protecting our children.
The change must start from our homes.
It is time for teachers and parents to learn about safety and sexual education so that they may talk to their children about it, and empower them for their own safety.