In 2016, eleven children in Pakistan reported being sexually abused every day, a 10% increase from the previous year. That is an average total of 4,015 every year. The numbers likely quadruple when one takes into account those children who suffer in silence.
In Pakistan, a country where 31% of the population is below the age of 14, silence is, in fact, often the only recourse available to victim-children.
Out of the 1,172 cases of rape, including gang-rape and sodomy, that were reported in 2016, only a handful made their way into public discourse.
The rest were forced to find their own way through a criminal justice system that provides virtually no safeguards for child complainants, hangs onto archaic procedures of investigating sexual crimes, and holds virtually zero convictions for sexual crimes in most districts.
Given the government’s pithy record in addressing child sexual abuse, the outrage and shock at the tragic murder of six-year-old Zainab in Kasur demonstrates our collective ignorance towards the plight of the most vulnerable.
Read next: Kasur as a political failure
In 2004, Punjab enacted The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act with the aim of providing the province with its first ever institutional and legal framework for the prevention and protection of children against abuse and exploitation.
However, the district child protection units envisioned under the law were established only in six districts and even those remain non-functional today.
A Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, with the chief minister as its patron-in-chief, was tasked with the establishment and management of the child protection units.
However, in the eight-year tenure of the current chief minister, not a single meeting of the bureau has been conducted.
August, 2015 was the first time in Pakistan’s recent history that the public was forced to confront the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of child sexual abuse when vile video tapes, showing the molestation of over 400 children between 2006-2014, surfaced in Kasur.
A high-level inquiry committee constituted by the Punjab government dismissed the reports as baseless and the result of land disputes between a few parties.
In absence of any law criminalising acts of child sexual abuse, pornography and trafficking, the few arrests that were made could only be charged under general sections for sodomy and rape under the Pakistan Penal Code.
While the events were enough to jolt the legislature into finally pushing a bill through the parliament in March, 2016, as always, actual implementation remains wanting. That same year, civil society recorded 100 deaths of children as a result of rape.
Editorial: Protect our children
Protecting children from exploitation has never been on agendas nationwide. This holds true both politically and socially.
It is no surprise that Punjab, the province where 62% of all child sexual abuse cases occurred in 2017, has failed to develop its own child protection policy.
The draft developed by the Social Welfare Department has failed to attain approval of the cabinet because of other ‘more important agenda items.’
Any attempt to introduce Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) in mainstream curricula is instantaneously thwarted.
The Punjab government, in 2011, cancelled a memorandum of understanding for the inclusion of LSBE in curricula of public schools, bowing to right wing pressure.
Parents have often joined opposition against LSBE and have seldom taken it upon themselves to equip their offspring with any knowledge necessary to protect themselves against sexual abuse.
In fact, sexual abuse, particularly occurring within the home and family, is muted for the benefit of ‘family honour.’
Despite the dismal public and private safeguards in place against child sexual abuse, the call for action in the wake of Zainab’s horrific death has singularly focused on police negligence and public punishment for the perpetrator.
What remains missing from the debate is our social and political unwillingness to recognise the complete lack of child-responsive legal and social institutions in the country that prioritise child welfare above all other considerations.
Confronted with the heart-wrenching reality, we can no longer ignore the silent suffering of children.
However, holding on to the belief that public and extreme punishment for the perpetrator will remedy our consistent neglect and apathy towards the vulnerable, is grossly misguided.
Punishing a single perpetrator will simply appease our consciences under the false illusion that we have taken sufficient action to finally address the high rates of public and private sexual abuse and exploitation.
However, it is unlikely that the alarming rates of child sexual abuse will decrease without the implementation of child protection units at the district level, along with LSBE in school curricula and willingness at home to openly talk about the issue.
Social media has irresponsibly claimed that a public hanging in Iran solved the country’s child sexual abuse problem. Civil society and media reports continue to show high rates of child sex abuse in the country.
A recent study showed that around 100 to 150 children living on the streets are killed every month in Tehran for reasons including abuse.
According to government reports, over 21% of these children experience sexual exploitation, including the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Tehran in June, 2015.
Additionally, the highest rise in AIDS in Iran has been reported to be the result of children working on the streets infected through rape.
Clearly, the tragic events surrounding Zainab’s death should lead us to finally push for a much better state of affairs for our country’s children.
The abduction of children has already accounted for hundreds of executions in Pakistan since a moratorium was lifted in December, 2014.
If we continue to hold the belief that adding another death to the mix will create any impact on the security of our children, then we will continue to let them down.
It’s high time that we prioritise the protection of our children in all legal and policy agendas, while implementing the already existing child safeguarding mechanisms.
We owe it to children like Zainab, and countless others like her, to finally convert the effort we put into our impassioned responses to implementing dedicated and long-term strategies to prevent child sexual abuse from happening further.
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