No country for children: The not-so-hidden horrors of child sexual abuse in Pakistan

Are religious institutions shielding predators? Delve into the harrowing truth of systemic child abuse in Pakistan, where clerical influence and misguided donor efforts perpetuate a cycle of silence and impunity.
Published April 24, 2024

Recent reports of sexual molestation of children by clerics and incriminating videos of corporal punishment of madrassa students are neither new discoveries, nor particular to Pakistan.

Globally, totalitarian institutions — seminaries, the Vatican, and even lay establishments like boarding schools, military barracks, orphanages, and shelters — have long records of systemic abuse. However, the power of clerical lobbies in Pakistan often secures impunity for religious institutions and only the high risks taken by whistleblowers, fearless activists, and survivors result in any kind of justice.

Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, the more temporal approaches to social development in Pakistan have been displaced by a generation convinced that sacralising development is appropriate for Muslim sensibilities. This has complicated pre-existing challenges in Pakistan’s colonial and Islamic hybrid legal regime, deepened the shame and stigma associated with concepts of gender and sex, and privileged clerical authority over human rights advocacy.

Vocational sex abuse

According to data gathered by Sahil, an NGO working on cases of child sexual abuse, the overwhelming majority of abusers are acquaintances or neighbours in communities or family members. At the same time, the data also shows that institutionally, the highest number of complaints emerge against religious teachers or clerics — more so than police, school-teachers, or nuclear family members.

In 2020, the Associated Press documented several cases of sexual abuse in madrassas, including the case of 8-year-old Yaous in Mansehra, where despite the arrest of the offender, Qari Shamsuddin, fellow clerics and worshippers at the mosque disputed the charges, terming him innocent and a ‘victim of anti-Islamic elements in the country’. The cleric was later sentenced to 16.5 years imprisonment.

Primary data remains limited and organisations rely on media reports and police complaints but the trend over the past 20 years shows the gender divide of abused girls in madrassas is slightly higher than that of boys (‘Cruel Numbers’). The recent case of Qari Abubakar Muaviyah’s alleged rape of a 12-year-old boy in Shahdara initially looked like a lost cause due to the usual clerical pressure for the survivor to resile.

Under the amended anti-rape law, the police and prosecutors are duty bound to continue investigation and judicial hearing, even if the survivor resiles, yet they prefer compromises. The difficulty of obtaining DNA forensics is another escape route in many cases. In the end, it was only social media pressure over the Muaviyah case that resulted in a political and legal response against powerful religious lobbies.

Over the years, there have also been several reports of gang rapes in such seminaries. In very rare cases do children fight their rapists off and where parents are resilient in their pursuit for justice.

The madrassa reform debacle

Historically, Pakistani madrassas have been subject to cycles of reorganisation and reform but only over curricula or funding and not institutional accountability.

In 2003, at the peak of the ‘war on terror’, a new form of war anthropology and research methods emerged, relying on fixers, handlers, translators, NGO research and No Objection Certificates awarded by the military authorities at their discretion. This new paradigm produced a body of newly minted ‘experts’ on Islam, terrorism, jihad, security and conflict studies and now, Islam and development, as funded by British and American governments under the pretext of Muslim exceptionalism (especially, Muslim women and the poor).

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) implemented a five-year, $100 million bilateral agreement in 2002. Another multi-million pound religions and research project was spearheaded by DFID in 2008, paving the way for faith-based approaches to social change in Pakistan. With the help of overseas Pakistani consultants, they found that religion can be valuable in terms of providing organisational resources for social movements, with religious leaders and Muslim NGOs as ‘partners’.

Policy briefs from such projects stressed on the need to review and include religion into the mainstream of development research and policy itself, including support to madrassas and to encourage women’s religious leadership as alternatives to Western feminism.

At the time, Gen Musharraf’s US-compliant government was facing domestic resistance for registering madrassas as suspected support bases and havens for terrorists. The top-down consultant policy briefs insisted on the kind of reform that was acceptable to the undefined “Ulema” and ignored the experiences of civil society on the subject by dismissing any critique of faith-based development by feminists as ‘western and liberal-secular orientalism’.

The experts producing such research rode the crest of Gen Musharaff’s duplicitous project of enlightened moderation and recommended the inclusion of madrassas and clerical leaders into the social development sector. Even those claiming radical credentials, and who were critical of the binaries of western secular departure from religious-based education, invested hope in the role of madrassas as some decolonising, non-Western social safety nets for children from impoverished backgrounds and in women’s empowerment through mosque and madrassa piety.

These researchers and studies completely ignored — as some orientalist presumption — the history of corporal punishment and child sexual abuse at mosques and madrassas that human rights activists had been documenting for at least a decade. This was a revealing and damaging missed opportunity.

This ‘partnership’ between donors and clerics has empowered the latter as community gate-keepers (especially, in projects related to education, vaccination, child protection committees and labour). Recent cases have shown, however, that some of these clerics, who are now power brokers, may pressurise victims to resile charges of sex abuse in communities and madrassas, and who facilitate compromise and settling cases outside of courts, especially when it involves fellow clerics.

Law as protection, not a right

Research studies, academic theses and donor reports continue to recommend that Pakistan’s government should make genuine efforts to understand how the madrassa leadership perceives reform and modernisation, and for involvement in social development projects without any caution for regulation of widespread allegations of physical or sexual abuses.

Every other sector of reform is subjected to correction as a constitutional and moral imperative (especially, the ‘corrupt’ bureaucracy and judiciary) but the one sector where appeasement by government and donors remains consistent is religion and its institutional influence. This extends and sustains moral and legal impunity to the priestly classes and prevents rights-based progress.

In the first instance, legal reform has managed to chip at some religious exemption by way of releasing rape and honour crimes from the Qisas and Diyat loophole. It took 30 years of consistent advocacy from women’s rights activists and not the route of some decolonial thesis, nor due to reinterpretive exegesis. The amendments to many discriminatory laws have been rationalised by liberal appeal and universalising influences within the Constitution and while some opportunist clerics and politicians have been ‘encouraged’ to curb their opposition, this does not count as ‘success’ of ecclesiastical partnerships.

Secondly, many gender and religious biases are underwritten in family laws which prevent consensus or consistency on matters of sexual maturity and underage marriage. Over 18 per cent of girls and 4 pc of boys in Pakistan are married before the age of 18 and prevention is complicated by our dual legal regime and by societal trends of forced conversions of girls from religious minorities. If marriage remains an unequal legal arrangement for all women, and an economic safety net for the poor and a social status for the rich, girls will remain devalued for just their labour and reproductive worth and their virginities and sexual purity will serve as premiums.

Third, overwhelmingly, cases of any but especially child sexual abuse continue to be subject to attrition where survivors or victims’ families resile under counsel and social pressure from community, police or clerical leaders. As human rights lawyers point out, as long as the judicial process privileges ocular evidence over corroborative forms and courts are unwilling to try cases despite resiling, sex crimes will not be subject to justice.

Mythos over logos

Beyond legal recourse, social protection for Pakistani children remains precarious due to misguided beliefs and flawed remedies.

The first myth that family, marriage, and community are safe havens encourage private settlements in sex abuse cases and perpetuate lifelong generational trauma. The second damaging myth is that biology is the driver of sexual violence instead of unequal power relations, especially between genders.

Feminists have countered both these fallacies. They refute the notion that sex abuse is a private matter by insisting that the personal is political and risk their lives to speak out on the commonality of violence in families and marriages. The Aurat March movement has expanded this cause with many members narrating their own experiences of sexual offences and providing ventilation for other survivors. Stigmatising sex education, or underplaying abuse on the pretext of immorality or false respectability, disarms the potential victim from self-defence — silence and shame is the paedophile’s best alibi.

Glorifying the virtues of domesticated pious women and obedient children justifies discipline and decision-making as the male guardian’s natural right. Feminists contend that it is not biology but elite capture of social, economic, political resources that buys impunity for powerful abusive men. They also point out that while there is significant challenge in addressing attitudes within clerical, judicial, and political circles where some may justify male privilege, dismiss allegations of sex crimes, or blame victims, such figures often remain in positions of leadership and trust.

Age of innocence; beyond reliance and alliances

Despite these conceits of legal, social and sexual inequalities, the self-defeating solutions continue to fixate on laws, liberation theology, and male allies — but each needs reconsideration.

Pakistan has no standard legal definition of a child — ages for voting, marriage, sex crime, factory work, succession age, or as a juvenile liable to criminal proceedings — vary considerably across the country and provinces. Addressing sex crimes either involves deferring responsibility to communities and families, which may perpetuate abuse, or relying on technological solutions as a last resort.

There are at least 17 officially listed helplines for children-related complaints, yet members of Sahil say that hardly any child uses the helplines to complain (it is mostly parents or other adults who use the referral system). The high profile and politicised Zainab Alert App for missing children offers lopsided results nationwide and reports more abduction of boys than girls in every province, offering no analysis.

Most laws and policies on women’s and children’s rights are missing data or evaluation, yet random remedies continue to sink the country’s global ranking. The girl-child has been the poster figure for the UN and donor organisations that have sponsored efforts to change the fate of generations of stunted, anaemic, illiterate Pakistani girls from growing into disenfranchised, disinherited, dependent and vulnerable adult women.

But the hubris that has insisted on religious inclusivity in donor programming over the past 20 years, has escalated faith-based approaches to girls’ and women’s development and which essentially bribe male religious leaders to approve projects that deliver basic rights. This approach has reinforced the role of clerics as gatekeepers in community programmes —officials note a variety of specialised roles among clerics, including those focusing on polio, family planning, and gender issues.

Those who defended piety politics and appealed for faith appropriate alternatives to ‘Western’ rights have subdued radical resistance into reformative donor projects and culture festivals. This has also trapped the Aurat March movement, since pietist women oppose the demands for sexual equality in a not-so-docile manner.

Improving conviction rates for sex offences is important but castration or cajoling male allies to detox their masculinities is not going to end sex abuse. The only proven difference is when women and children refuse to remain silent; instead, they subvert and challenge all disparities, insist on equal educational, inheritance, marital, and professional rights, rather than constantly bargain with patriarchy or plead with its institutional representatives.

Rather than pouring resources into Sisyphean programmes for community behavioural change, perhaps, it is time to empower the child directly. This could involve implementing rights-based approaches and providing information and leadership to diminish the influence of community leaders, guardians, and traditional intermediaries. Such measures would help restore a sense of balance while ensuring the safety and self-reliance of children.

As long as academics sanitise religious institutions and activists promote faith-based laws and rights as decolonial tools; as long as newspapers refuse to carry ‘sensitive’ discussions on religion or sex, and feminists wait politely on the good will of male allies to introspect and lose their privileges; as long as governments continue to appease the political clerical classes while donors continue their paradoxical faith based social development, the country will fail to secure the godliness that is, a safe childhood.

Header image taken from Reuters.