IT was in January last year that the case of little Zainab in Kasur sparked protests across Pakistan, gripping the public’s consciousness for months, following her brutal rape and murder. Society and state went into overdrive promising to deliver justice. And though the intense public outrage and scrutiny did ultimately help in identifying and prosecuting her killer, what ought to have been a watershed moment for ensuring the rights and protection of Pakistan’s children was, to a certain extent, derailed by base motivations.
The media, which played a pivotal role in spotlighting Zainab’s case and the broader issue of rampant child sexual abuse, often succumbed to sensationalist reportage, including lurid politicised claims.
Exposed not just for being asleep at the wheel in the face of overwhelming evidence of a serial predator in Kasur’s midst, but for having earlier killed an innocent man in a staged encounter for the latter’s crimes, the police seemed more concerned with appearing proactive rather than establishing methodical investigative norms.
Announcing her killer’s arrest, Punjab’s then chief minster struck a rather distastefully triumphant note, while a disturbingly large section of Pakistanis demanded the medieval practice of public executions. In our national distress, when fortitude and wisdom were called for, we may have not always appealed to our better nature.
Have we learnt any lessons since last year? Much of this gaucheness might be forgiven if it led to a sustained drive for social and institutional reforms. Indeed, behind the scenes, there are those who are working diligently to raise awareness and provide children and families with the necessary tools to prevent, report and heal from the physical and emotional wounds of sexual assault. But, daily reports of children being sexually abused and murdered continue to surface.
One report, tracking data on child abuse cases reported in newspapers across Pakistan, recorded 3,445 cases in 2017, and 2,322 in the first six months of 2018 alone — demonstrating a significant uptick. It is clearly only the tip of the iceberg, but does the rise actually signify an increase in the incidence rate, or does it reflect that increased awareness has reduced stigma and improved mechanisms for reporting such crimes?
The Senate committee inquiring into child abuse has lamented the lack of credible data to formulate any meaningful strategy to combat this scourge. We owe Zainab — and the countless nameless, faceless child victims like her — to do better.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2019