EACH year, the child protection advocacy group Sahil announces its findings on the scale of the abuse that children endure in this country; the data is collected by looking into newspaper reports on the sexual abuse of children (including rape and attempted rape), child marriage, and abducted and missing children. In its most recent statement, foraging through 84 newspapers, Sahil noted that a disturbing 2,846 cases were reported across the country in the previous year. In other words, approximately eight children were subjected to abuse each day of 2019, with more than half being girls (54pc). Prior to that, the figure was even higher at a staggering 3,832 in 2018 — the same year the body of young Zainab Ansari was found in a garbage heap in Kasur; she had been brutally raped and murdered by her captor. The incident sparked protests and demands for accountability across the country. To some degree, it also changed the way we think about the issue of sexual abuse of children, and finally led to the passage of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill by the National Assembly and the Senate in recent weeks. While these figures may send a chill down the spine, they are likely only scratching the surface, as many other cases go unreported. It is only in recent years that a culture of talking about sexual abuse and exploitation has been encouraged in Pakistan, and that too only in certain sections of society. Many other stories will never see the light of day. It may even shock the more naive and insulated amongst us to learn about the exact scale of the problem, or about the capacity for evil in ‘ordinary’ people.

Children are one of the most vulnerable groups in any society, lacking the vocabulary, clear understanding, and often the support they need to confront their abusers. From a young age, they are taught not to question authority — the adults in their midst — and often suffer alone, suppressing whatever horrors they are made to endure in silence. Many abusers are from within the family, or close to the family members, earning and abusing their trust. In Sahil’s most recent data, the majority of children that were subjected to abuse were between the ages of six and 15, but there were some even under the age of one. Let the horror of that figure sink in.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2020

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