PESHAWAR: Halfway through the lecture, a nine-year-old boy nudges his class fellow and says: “Look at the madam! She’s talking dirty.” The two boys snigger quietly, burying their faces in their hands, hiding their smiles.
There are 200 children in the hall; the Agha Khan auditorium at the University of Peshawar is packed to capacity. The young audience members—boys and girls, all belonging to grade 8 or higher— are here to watch the play, but also to act in it. The performance is an interactive theatre drama on child abuse.
Their teacher is acting too, playing a doctor. On the makeshift stage, she points to a chart affixed to the classroom wall and asks her students, “Do you know which parts of your body are private?”
The chart makes it quite clear what parts of the body are private—they are all highlighted. In unison, the children’s voices resound through the hall: “Yes ma’am.”
Learning through theatre
In the auditorium, most faces bear shy smiles and nervous shifting glances, but the children watch and listen intently. The actors are telling them about their rights over their bodies. It is time to show them how to respond in case of a threat of sex abuse. The children visibly stiffen as the doctor in the play advises them on how to react if someone attempts child rape or molestation.
Rubab is an eighth grader at the University Public School, and is among the children gathered in the auditorium. After watching the component on sex education, she says she’s learned “to scream on the spot if anyone tries to touch me.”
Rubab describes one scene in the play, where a young boy is shown working at a mechanic’s workshop. The teacher at the workshop, an older man, tries to seduce the boy by touching his private parts. “The scene describes how children are sexually abused in society,” Rubab says. “And the play concluded by telling children how to react to such situations.”
In the last scene, the children are told to scream, call for help, and inform their parents. They are told that if they do not feel comfortable opening up to their parents in case of abuse, they should reach out to their older siblings. The stage then opens up for the children to come and enact suggestions of their own. How would they handle the situation if someone tried to violate them?
Rubab says she now knows. “I would let my parents know if someone tried to touch me.”
Educating children—and parents
The play has been arranged by Aitebaar, a non-profit working to create awareness about social issues. Atif Afzal, the organisation’s theatre project coordinator, says that the response from parents and educational institutions has been overwhelming. In fact, Aitebaar has been approached by a number of private schools to arrange theatre dramas, specifically on the topic of sex education. The project is implemented under an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and will be extended to the rest of the country soon.
“Theater dramas are the best way to communicate with children,” Afzal says. “Specifically to educate them on something as sensitive as sex abuse.”
Sex education is considered taboo in Pakistani society. In 2014, the All Pakistan Private School Federation (APPSF), which represents over 152,000 private schools across the country, banned sex education from the institutions’ curriculum when they were asked to do so by the government. In the same year, the federation’s president told the media that sex education is “against our constitution and religion.”
Dr Azaz Jamal, a medical officer in the psychiatry unit of Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar, is concerned by the lack of sexual education, which leads to depression and anxiety among children especially as they approach puberty.
“Depression is a common problem among children at the cusp of puberty,” Dr Jamal says. Over the years, he has treated many children suffering anxiety due to changes in their bodies.
“Children feel they have contracted some kind of disease,” he explains. He recalls a patient he treated for pre-mature ejaculation caused by excessive masturbation. “The patient was severely depressed as he considered it a serious setback to his sex-life,” Dr Jamal says. Apparently, the patient had no idea that premature ejaculation was a common sexual condition, and easily treatable.
Dr Jamal proposes that children should start getting sex education around the age of 10, around the time changes begin occurring in their body. He attributes the widespread sex abuse of children to the lack of sex education, and feels that adults are in need of it as much as children are. “Victims of child sex-abuse cannot express it [the abuse] to their elders,” he says. He feels people do not feel comfortable opening up because of social stigmas. “So the cycle continues.”
Child abuse is rampant in Pakistan. Sahil, an organisation that compiles ‘cruel numbers’—numbers on child abuse cases—uses national and local information to build its data. According to their research, some 3,002 cases of child sex abuse were reported in 2013. For the year 2014, the figure stood at a “staggering 3,508, bringing the number of abused children to 10 every day,” Sahil’s cruel numbers report says.
The figure amounts to an increase of 17 per cent from the previous year. Sahil’s 2014 data for provinces further shows that 2,054 cases were reported in Punjab, followed by 875 in Sindh, 297 in Balochistan, 152 in Khyber Pakhthunkhwa (KP), 90 in Islamabad, 38 in Kashmir, and one each in Gilgit-Baltistan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
The urban-rural divide shows that 67 per cent cases were reported from rural areas where as 33 per cent were reported from the urban areas, according to Sahil’s 2014 report.
Creating a safer world
While certain sections of society resist sex education due to religious regions, others consider it taboo for cultural reasons. The Pashtun population living along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is one such region. Professor Jamil Ahmad Chitrali, who teaches anthropology at the University of Peshawar, says that Pashtun societies have been deprived of awareness and education programmes for decades due to the ongoing Afghan jihad and the war against terrorism, conflicts for which KP has become a battleground.
Chitrali stresses upon the need for social programming such as theatre dramas to help educate children about social issues like sex abuse. “We need to create an environment where basic human rights are guaranteed to every citizen,” Chitrali says. “Where they are aware of how to react and seek help in case of rights violations.”
Atiebaar’s Atif Afzal says that is precisely their mission through the interactive plays, and also rejects the narrative that KP’s people are conservative and oppose sex education for their children. Many children have expressed greater confidence in their ability to handle threatening situations, and their elders have welcomed the programmes with relief.
“I wasn’t aware of the term ‘sex education’ until now,” admits Arbab Saad*, another eighth grader who watched the performance. Arbab says he feels more confident in his ability to deal with sex abuse threats after watching the play. But the play taught him more than just words and definitions. Arbab says he knows now: he will never let anyone touch his body.
This piece first appeared in Newslens Pakistan and has been reproduced with permission.