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Unreal response to outrage

January 18, 2018

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FOR over a week, the case of Zainab, the seven- to eight-year-old girl victim of rape and murder, has overshadowed everything else in the country because it has exposed a malignant growth in our system that has made us known for vice, misgovernance and injustice.

Zainab is one of the several hundred, if not several thousand under-10 girls who have been killed after rape over the past few years across the country, not only in small towns but also in large cities like Karachi and Lahore. What has made this case an overriding concern for state institutions and public organisations?

The ball was set rolling by the people of Kasur whose pent-up anger at the murder-rape of little girls — 11 known cases in as many months and other incidents of sexual abuse of children — spilled over into violence. They were perhaps encouraged to resort to mob action by the recent success of such tactics.

There was perhaps an element of sympathy for the victim as her parents were out of the country. Once the ‘justice for Zainab’ call reverberated across the country, the opposition groups jumped at the opportunity to make capital at the cost of an already half-paralysed government. Now the case is used by everybody who matters to prove himself a defender of children’s rights. The media knights are running a competition for unearthing past incidents that has made the whole narrative unnecessarily morbid. It seems the guilt of having abandoned innocent children to the devil for a long time is being buried under shouts of concern for them.

It is unrealistic to expect our police force to catch culprits responsible for rape and murder within days.

The main target of attack is the police. They are being castigated for failing to nab the culprits responsible for past incidents and also for not catching Zainab’s killer promptly. But it is unfair to blame the Kasur police alone for failure to track down criminals in the past, especially in the case of abuse of scores of boys. Those who persuaded the police to make a mess of the latter case, the prosecutors and the complainants who accepted compromises, are equally guilty.

Besides, the external factors that have contributed to the degeneration of the police force cannot be ignored. Parliament has never debated the Police Order of 2002 and it is in force in Punjab and forms the basis of a new Khyber Pakhtunkhwa law minus the important provisions for liaison with citizens and public oversight bodies. It is only a group of former police officers who have raised this matter in court. The other two provinces are reluctant to move beyond the Police Act of 1861. The police have also suffered heavily due to the terrorism syndrome.

The importance attached to the drive against terrorism is justified but it has undermined the police’s normal functioning in two ways. First, the time the police have after protecting popular VVIPs is consumed in tracking down terrorists and their facilitators. It is doubtful if normal police duties such as making records of small-time criminals and jobless loafers receive due attention. This point has social relevance in Kasur which as a border district has a considerable presence of security forces that are constantly looking for terrorists and finding out who is doing what in the area; the police too are led into believing that these are the only tasks worth attempting.

Second, the police seem to have been carried away by the narrative about terrorism to the extent that they view anyone ignoring their call at a check post as a terrorist and start shooting at him. They have forgotten the ways of peacefully dealing with a mob or using as little violence as possible. That is perhaps the reason for the Kasur police’s resort to irresponsible firing on a crowd of protesters that resulted in the loss of two lives.

It is quite unrealistic to expect such a police force to catch culprits responsible for rape and murder within hours, or even days. Much needs to be done to train the police in nonviolent means of investigation.

A number of suggestions have been made to ensure that no more girls fall victim to the criminal designs of sex fiends. These range from suggestions of sex education at schools to girls being trained in the martial arts. All such measures must be visualised in the overall scheme of enforcing children’s and women’s rights that the state is able to draw up and implement. You cannot protect girls against violence without guaranteeing universal education up to secondary level and without stopping child marriages altogether.

Most of the ideas thrown up during the current debate are in the form of proposals of improving the police’s performance or deterrent punishment for the criminals. The few preventive measures that have been suggested are hard to apply and offer limited relief. What is lacking in the debate is an attempt to understand the causes of the malady.

Pakistani girls share the hard lot of older females. The disadvantages of patriarchy affect girls too. The conservative sections’ insistence on justifying child marriages makes a significant contribution to girls’ sex abuse. A sex-starved pervert can argue that if a little girl can be given away in marriage she is fit to satisfy his lust too.

No society has born criminals or sex maniacs. Most people do what they see their elders, superiors and rulers doing, and whatever they see being done to women by the privileged they try to do to the underprivileged. A criminal often tries to obtain/secure unlawfully what he cannot lawfully achieve. Thus a country that does not enable its underprivileged to meet their needs, and does not guarantee the right to work puts all vulnerable citizens at risk. It is in the direction of removing want and dangerous inequalities that the effort to save children should move.

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2018