Abuse epidemic

June 13, 2019


The writer is a human rights lawyer.
The writer is a human rights lawyer.

APPROXIMATELY 49 per cent of Pakis­tan’s population is below the age of 18. With numbers surpassing 100 million, Pakistan’s youth bulge is greater than ever before. What could potentially serve as a transformational force to take the country off the path of economic stagnation has been treated with criminal neglect by successive regimes.

In 2019, Pakistan ranked 159 out of 196 countries in its international child rights compliance. The ranking came four years after the nation was shocked by reports of hundreds of videos documenting the sexual abuse of around 300 children in Kasur. Frustrated by years of police inaction, parents of survivors took to the streets, only to be told by a government-appointed inquiry committee that their complaints were fabricated.

In January 2018, the rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab reignited public outrage. Whilst the police blundered through a chaotic search for the perpetrator, the public narrative remained singularly focused on the death penalty as an antidote to the sexual abuse of children. It took DNA samples from 90 suspects and a reward of Rs10m to track down the perpetrator and, eventually, secure a conviction. With the killer’s execution, public outrage dissipated — for a while.

In May 2019, police dismissed the concerns of the family of nine-year-old Farishta, whose abused body was discovered nearly five days later. Clearly, the death penalty in Zainab’s case had failed to have its intended deterrent effect. According to a report by the NGO Sahil, there was, in fact, a 33pc increase in reported cases of child sexual abuse in 2018 — when Zainab’s body was found — as compared to 2017. However, the current prime minister has proposed the death penalty for all child abuse.

The death penalty may inhibit reporting of sexual crimes.

The government’s short-sighted strategy of relying upon the death penalty in individual cases to address the issue is evidence of its consistent neglect of the suffering of half its population. Despite lofty promises of police reform dominating the election campaign, survivors and their families face a broken criminal justice system. The few who are successful in filing FIRs must deal with ineffective investigation procedures and protracted criminal trials.

With the majority of complaints eventually withdrawn through compromises, the question remains: in the absence of convictions, who will end up being executed under the prime minister’s proposed strategy? For an illustration of the logical disconnect underlying the strategy, one only need look at the 141 cases reported between January 2018 and August 2018 wherein not a single conviction was secured.

Whilst the authorities here continue to hope that the death penalty is the solution to its child sex abuse epidemic, comparative jurisdictions are recognising its ineffectiveness. In 2008, the US Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law providing the death penalty for child rape. There is growing consensus that the death penalty harms victims. Firstly, marking child sexual abuse as a capital crime sends a message to victims that their violation is akin to their murder. This could increase their depression and obstruct their rehabilitation.

Additionally, the death penalty is likely to decrease the rate of reporting of sexual crimes. A study from 2002 to 2006 found that 9,531 abusers were people known to victims, compared to 3,072 strangers. Victims are less likely to report crimes by known abusers if they know they will be executed. Judges are also less likely to award convictions for sex crimes when the punishment is severe. This trend has been observed in cases of gang rape, for which the Pakistan Penal Code awards death penalty to all involved. An examination of judgements reveals that judges believe that hanging multiple people is not commensurate with the gravity of the offence.

Reform efforts must move beyond a law-and-order approach and include preventive measures, including mandatory life-skills based education, or LSBE, with an emphasis on arming children with the knowledge to identify risks. However, civil society advocacy efforts seeking inclusion of LSBE in education policy and curricula have remained unanswered. Ironically, resistance to LSBE often comes most strongly from parents who associate it with encouraging promiscuous behaviour.

Children also remain a low priority for political parties and the bureaucratic machinery. Children cannot vote and often lack political, economic and social power that is needed to sustain existing power structures. Despite their numbers, the government continues to spend less than 6pc of GDP on children and allocates limited priority to their issues in legal and policy debates.

If we stay on the path of apathy towards our primary transformational resource, the country will continue to stumble towards economic stagnation and political unrest. The voices of Zainab and Farishta must be heard and honoured before others meet their tragic fate.

The writer is a human rights lawyer.

Twitter: @ZainabQ

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2019