THE numbers should shock and shame Pakistan but they are unlikely to. According to data produced by Sahil, an NGO that monitors child abuse in Pakistan, reported child abuse cases have increased by 36 per cent in Pakistan in the first half of 2016, as compared to the same period last year. If this were not horror enough, there is more: the number of reported gang rapes of children (classified as under 18 years old) has increased by 71pc as compared to the same time last year. Increases are also seen in the number of attempted rapes and in the number of abuse cases of the very youngest of children, those between 0-5 years of age.
It is a ghastly reflection of a grotesque society. Beyond the numbers, Sahil also notes the locations where the abuse took place. In the incidents in which location is reported, the highest number of cases — 318 — took place in the victims’ own homes, followed by 276 that took place at the residence of an acquaintance. Not only are Pakistani children at tremendous risk of abuse, it is very likely that they will be victimised inside their own homes and consequently by those they trust most, their parents or relations. It is the worst indictment possible for any society; it is not just the world with its venom and vice that lies waiting to exploit them, it is also their very own.
Beyond the home, child abuse was found to have taken place in varying numbers in the street, in wooded areas, in havelis, in seminaries, schools, shops, shrines, hotels and marriage halls. A look at this exhaustive list proves one truth: there is no corner of the country where the exploitation of children is not taking place.
The inclusion of places such as schools, seminaries and havelis also points to the fact that those allotted some store of power via class or classroom regularly abuse the children who are entrusted to them. As is the case with abuse anywhere, the relative powerlessness of victims ensures that few cases are actually reported, and even of the ones reported, only about half make it to newspapers and the television media. The truth is that the size of the problem of exploited children is far greater than we imagine.
There is no corner of the country where the exploitation of children is not taking place.
One of the cases investigated in detail in the Sahil report is of the child abuse ring whose existence and involvement in hundreds of cases came to light in May this year. When police carried out a raid at the premises of one well-off man who owns a warehouse near Swat, they found him in a compromising position with a 14-year-old boy. The subsequent investigation revealed that he had been involved in abusing scores of children, regularly videotaping and taking pictures of them so that he could blackmail them into further abuse. These videos and pictures could also be sold on the internet and to other paedophiles.
The damning details recorded in the Sahil report reveal how abusers groom and victimise children. One victim reports that he was selling sweets at the market in Swat when he was asked to visit the video game shop of a man. He was then abducted, put into a sack and taken to the warehouse owner at gunpoint. The report reveals that the abductor himself had been abused by the warehouse owner, who made videos of him and used them to blackmail him. Eventually he said that if the abused abductor (who is now 19 or 20 years old) would not have a sexual relationship with him, he would have to start supplying him other children. In this way, the victim became a child-abuse facilitator.
Another former victim was similarly coerced into becoming a facilitator, ensuring a continuing cycle of abuse and persecution. The USB drives and the memory cards on which the material was recorded were kept in a safe in the warehouse owner’s house.
Sahil’s investigation into the Swat case, a classic iteration of just how paedophiles find victims and initiate chains of victimisation that keep them supplied with new victims, also provides insight on the consequences for victims. Abuse victims often show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, stammering, grinding of teeth and debilitating feelings of shame and guilt. In cases in which the children are abducted they may also suffer pain in their arms and legs from having being chained and bound for long periods of time.
Sahil’s findings are a chilling read; but the consumption of the details is absolutely crucial if an apathetic society clinging to denial is to be woken up and prodded into action.
While the Swat incident involves abuse and rape by a paedophile who was usually a stranger to his victims, the inordinately high number of children who report being abused in their homes means that abusers are often relatives and loved ones. In these cases, the taboo against reporting abuse, particularly if abusers are powerful male members of the society, means that children have absolutely no recourse but to put up with what is happening.
The mechanisms of shame that form the fulcrum of morality in Pakistan victimise abused children a second time by insisting that the taboo against public conversations about child rape and molestation must be maintained, even if it guarantees the continued persecution of children.
A shame culture’s premise that what is unseen does not have moral reality means that those abusers and paedophiles can continue to enjoy the cover afforded by the private realm of family and by blackmail. Given these realities, it is very likely that abuse cases will continue to rise, and Pakistan’s children exploited and raped, while everyone else watches unmoved or simply looks away. These are painful truths; it is easier to disown them and say they’re not our kids, and so not our problem.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2016