“DEATH is a better option,” said one of the survivors of the child pornography ring that was exposed this summer in the Punjab town of Kasur. He made the statement while speaking to a journalist who was doing a follow-up story on the affected children.
Like hundreds of others, he was tortured and filmed while performing sexual acts. Then like many of the other children and their families, he was blackmailed so that he would not go to the authorities. Now, he and several others are alive, but severely depressed, unable to see a path ahead.
Child survivors of sexual abuse face an uphill battle even in countries where there are many resources to help them. In Pakistan the cumulative burden of shame along with a lack of assistance and acceptance dooms them even further. Immediately after the Kasur story broke, it seemed that positive steps would lead to some accountability and action. A fact-finding mission sent by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan confirmed that a heinous crime had been committed against the children. Efforts to cover it up by alleging a land dispute between various families, the Commission report found, were entirely made up and deceptive.
The scope of the crime was huge, and hundreds of children were affected. With media attention focused on the sordid case, politicians made promises and many NGOs tried to collect resources for the affected children. However, after the passage of some months, the media spotlight predictably shifted from Kasur; the victims, still ashamed and still terrified, have been left largely to fend for themselves.
An informed child, a child who knows about protecting his or her body, is a child less likely to be victimised.
That is the condition of those who have already been harmed, whose lives will now carry the onerous burden of abuse forever. The case of those who are future victims, however, is just as bleak. Since the Kasur case came to light, few efforts have been made at the national level to create awareness and educate children about child sexual abuse. No new legislation on the issue is pending, and no new curriculum measures are being considered to take the matter seriously.
The efforts that do exist are largely piecemeal, taken by one or the other NGO or concerned group of citizens. The reports, the seminars, the discussions that took place in the immediate aftermath of Kasur have, in sum, failed to make an impact and motivate a change in the way Pakistani society deals with the issue of child sexual abuse.
The consequence, of course, is that all Pakistani children are currently extremely vulnerable to being sexually exploited. The documentary in which one of the Kasur survivors wishes for death also includes an interview with a man who works at a truck stop. Truckers, he unabashedly tells the camera, often share their beds with little boys. The children’s job is to satisfy these men sexually so that they can have a place to sleep. The aftermath of Kasur was full of such reports, yet no groundswell of public outrage exists to eradicate the exploitative practice that is undoubtedly going on at truck stops all over the country. Despite being exposed, the truck stop network of abuse and exploitation continues to function without fear.
There is no doubt that the virtual economy perpetuated by child pornographers makes the task of catching and punishing them difficult. There are millions of poor children in Pakistan, their bodies easy prey for those looking to make a buck from the worst kind of exploitation. When consumers of child pornography are caught and convicted in the developed world, in Canada, the United States or Western Europe, troves of child pornography often made in poor countries is found in their possession. The suppliers in Pakistan, Thailand or wherever, are, however, untouched by those busts, able to continue production and dissemination, creating new victims.
One effective way of protecting children from sexual abuse is to teach them about protecting their bodies and insist that grown-ups who tell them to keep secrets about their bodies are not their friends. When children are not educated about what constitutes improper physical contact they have no means of articulating what may be happening to them or to tell an adult about it. A child who knows about physical and personal boundaries, an educated child, is not as easily victimised as a child who has no ability to describe the conditions of their victimisation or is afraid to do so because they have been frightened into keeping abuse a secret.
If all of Pakistan’s schoolchildren are educated, taught to expect privacy and protection of their bodies, they are more protected from the paedophiles who want to victimise them.
A cursory look at those convicted on charges of child pornography in Western countries reveals that many paedophiles purposely seek professions that provide them access to children. Teachers, coaches and other school officials are often among these, eager to gain the trust of parents and then exploit the children that are entrusted to their care. Not only is there little awareness of this in Pakistan, there are almost no screening mechanisms that would exclude paedophiles from professions where they have easy access to children. With this context, it is up to parents to ensure that their children are not being exploited as a consequence of societal blindness to the issue.
Children are innocent and childhood a time of wonder and trust. It is repugnant, therefore, to even think about the sordid actions and intentions of those who prey on children. The necessity of teaching and talking to children about child sexual abuse is indeed an indictment of the cruelty of the world that we inhabit.
If Kasur and the suffering of children there can teach Pakistani parents anything, it should be that an informed child, a child who knows about protecting his or her body, is a child less likely to be victimised. The lesson then is a simple one: teach your children, talk to them, and perhaps then you will be able to protect them.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn September 30th, 2015