On the evening of March 2, 2011, Karachi reported a hair-raising incident: a five-year-old Hindu girl had been raped and had to be rushed to a private hospital to save her life. The alleged rapist, a neighbour that the family trusted, was on the run. The girl had gone missing in a market for a matter of minutes. By the time her mother found her, there was blood dripping from her body and her shalwar had already been stained red. She survived after appropriate medical care and reconstructive surgery, but doctors also informed the parents that their daughter would never be able to bear kids.
“In Pakistan, there is a certain nonchalance when it comes to people losing contact with children,” complains Mohammad Ali, the chief of Roshni Helpline, a non-governmental organisation that runs the 1138 helpline for children who have gone missing.
With sexual assault being discussed widely today, the fact of the matter is that it all begins when a child goes missing. They can go missing in the market or at a close family event. They can go missing from their classrooms or in the light of day. And once they are missing, what happens to them is not something that can be predicted or stopped.
“From families and friends to various law officers, everyone tends to tell parents to simply go looking for their children. That perhaps, their child is with a friend or family. It is because of these reasons that parents often don’t consider their child to be missing as a cognisable offence. But the reality is often far more brutal than that.”
Losing oneself in the bustle of the big city is one thing but going missing is entirely different
Although the incidence of sexual assault on women is very high, such crimes aren’t restricted to girls or women alone. In the eyes of predators, boys and young men also serve the same purpose.
Young Qasim has barely entered his teenage years and is a ragpicker in Karachi’s Saddar area. He arrived in the city from Thatta “when the floods happened” (in 2010) but lost contact with his family outside the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, where his infant sister was lodged for treatment. Today, Qasim is an addict, of heroine and glue. He sleeps on the streets of Saddar, and saves most of his earnings for his indulgences.
“If you say I am not eating well, I will tell you that I have nihari or qorma for dinner every night. I do have to wait in line outside one of these restaurants, but I never sleep hungry,” says Qasim.
And which indulgence does he fulfil with the money he saves?
“Drugs and women.”
Women? At his age?
“They are very cheap and you can negotiate too.”
Who introduced him to sex?
“A cop. I have to sexually gratify him, sometimes even thrice every week. That is the reason I am still allowed to work and sleep in this area. And he is the reason I first understood what sex is,” Qasim says matter-of-factly, before changing the topic: “I don’t like the young women they have at the brothel; I prefer middle-aged women.”
What becomes clear later on in the interaction is that the boy was raped first by the police officer, groomed to become his sex slave, before the boy replicated the same behaviour on to others. In some instances, the boy confesses to forcing himself on prostitutes irrespective of whether they wanted to have sex with him or not. This repetition of abuse is often ignored in the debate on child abuse but the number of abuse cases is simply piling up.
In 2017 alone, 1,894 children went missing from Karachi according to figures compiled by the Roshni — 1,396 boys and 498 girls. Of these 1,300 were recovered, 974 boys and 326 girls. Two children’s dead bodies were also found. The age profile of these children tells a fascinating story in itself: most children abducted are in the 11-15 age bracket (801) followed by 16-18 years (563). In the 0-5 bracket, 105 children went missing from Karachi while in the 6-10 bracket, 365 were kidnapped.
Much of the problem begins with the fact that children going missing are often not reported to the police. And even if they are, no first information report (FIR) is lodged in the first 24 hours. An entry is made in the roznamcha [daily register] of a police station, but by the time an FIR is registered, the child abductors have already moved their victims to a different location.
“If an FIR is registered, then it becomes a legal necessity to put the child through a proper medical to check the abuse they have suffered,” explains Ali. “The case cannot be disposed of without a medical.”
But herein lies a dichotomy: the interest of the child is often at odds with the interests of the parents. While a recovered child needs treatment — mental and physical — parents are reluctant to lodge FIRs in fear of having “shame” brought on to the family and their name being dragged through the mud in the media. Amidst this dichotomy, a child who has been recovered begins a life of isolation: they can neither talk to anyone nor go to a doctor to find the help they need.
A teenage girl recently went missing from Karachi. Her parents did not report the incident to the police but to the Helpline. And although, together with law enforcement, they were able to recover the child from a gang in Hyderabad pushing abducted children into prostitution, the parents put the matter to bed right after taking possession of their child.
“It is difficult to put a number on how many children are sexually abused when they go missing,” says the Roshni Helpline chief. “If no medicals are conducted, how can we ascertain what kind of abuse the child has gone through?”
This is besides the number of cases that go unreported because a family member, or somebody who is close to the family, is accused of being the rapist. In the last week alone, testimonies have emerged on social media claiming that parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, domestic help, teachers, even caretakers are perpetrators of abuse. The children, though, remain in fear till such time that they can seek mental help themselves. In a society where negation and derision is a common response to stories of sexual abuse, finding someone who won’t disbelieve their story nor cast aspersions is an uphill task. Then there is the taboo of staying silent lest people believe that “there is something wrong” with a person or that “they are seeking attention.”
The great lament among child rights defenders is that post-18th Amendment, when provinces were empowered to make their own decisions regarding the health and well-being of women and children, no specific legislation on child protection has been enacted. The Zainab Ansari case in Kasur prompted the government of Sindh to form a helpdesk and helpline in the Chief Minister House. Encouraging as this step might be, it is only a band-aid introduced to placate emotions.
There is an absence of places to rehabilitate children who have been rescued, sometimes from their own families. There is also a shortage of government doctors who can provide mental counselling to those who have gone through the menace of child abuse. While meaningful efforts being made to counter child abuse are largely in the non-governmental sector, law enforcement in Sindh has historically repeated the claim that there is no money available to the police to pursue such cases.
There is some hope, though. On December 6 last year, a senate committee heard the pleas of the Roshni Helpline and gave them an audience in Islamabad. Legislators of all mainstream parties were present on the occasion. During the discussion, government officials admitted to not having any figures on crimes committed against children. This prompted a larger debate on what kinds of legislation will be needed to address this menace.
“Everybody is on the same page,” says Ali, “and we hope the Zainab case will expedite the matter of instituting laws against crimes committed against children.”
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 21st, 2018