ANOTHER year, another Zainab — two little girls who shared a name and met the same terrible fate. In 2018, it was an eight-year-old who was abducted, raped and murdered in Kasur. This time, it is a two-and-a-half-year-old violated and slain in Charsadda. She had gone out to play with other children when she was kidnapped; her body was found in a field the next day. Of course, there have been many more such victims. To list but some from the last few weeks alone: five-year-old Mawrah, raped and killed in Karachi, her body torched and discarded on a garbage heap; an eight-year-old boy sodomised and murdered, also in Karachi; and a 12-year-old boy gang raped by five men in Jhang who was rescued by his father.

Looking further back, who can forget the Kasur child porn scandal in 2015, which has been followed by more incidents of child rape in the district, making it almost a byword for this heinous crime? That episode laid to rest the fanciful notion that depravity in this society could not plumb such depths as to profit off the bodies of innocent children, let alone snuff out their lives. However, it was in January 2018, when the story of the horrors visited upon Zainab in Kasur sparked national outrage — particularly when it was learnt that 12 girls before her had also been raped and killed in the area — that it seemed a corner had been turned. The public had had enough of the impunity with which child rapists acted and of the police’s lackadaisical, often callous, approach towards bringing perpetrators to book. Nevertheless, it took over two years before the Zainab Alert, Recovery and Response Act was passed. The purpose of the much-needed legislation is to expedite procedures and synchronise the workings of various bodies responsible for recovering missing and abducted children. It also mandates the setting up of a helpline and the Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Agency to send out alerts upon receiving information that a child has gone missing. According to research in the US, in 76pc of the child homicides studied, the minor was dead within three hours of abduction, and in 88.5pc of the cases, the child was dead within 24 hours. There is thus in most cases a very small window of opportunity to save a child’s life. An alert effectively used can be a critical tool.

A good piece of legislation, ZARRA must be implemented without any delay. Otherwise it will be no better than the existing child protection laws in the country that have no practical footprint. Also, given that abusers are often people known to the victims, there must be more open conversations in schools with students about sexual violence. Prudishness will only leave our young ones vulnerable to the monsters amongst us.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2020

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