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Living dangerously

Zofeen T. Ebrahim writes about the prevalence of child molestation within the boundaries of one’s home.

Abuse of children, particularly sexual abuse, is rarely admitted in our society. For too long, Pakistani society has been in complete denial of its very existence within the four walls of a home.

In fact, it is the close-knit family structure that often masks the abhorrent cruelty perpetrated on children. Statistics gathered in 2011 by Sahil, a non governmental organisation working on the issue, show that 88 per cent of cases of sexual assault took place within homes.

While there is much under-reporting, based on data gleaned from newspapers and NGOs, the total number of sexual abuse cases in 2011, recorded by Sahil, stood at 2,942. In other words eight children were sexually abused per day.

So what exactly is child sexual abuse?

Dr Asha Bedar, a psychologist defines it as: “Child sexual abuse (CSA) is any act in which an adult or a much older child uses a child sexually. This can include anything from seemingly innocuous acts like touching, fondling and kissing a child to deliberate molestation.”

According to research, most offenders are persons a child trusts including parents, relatives and school teachers, people in the neighbourhood, shopkeepers, etc. and not strangers as is commonly believed.

Dr Ambreen Ahmad, an Islamabad-based psychiatrist, also points to household help. “Many times children are cared for and left alone with household help,” she said, adding that often these are trusted people. “On many occasions, abuse of children happens at the hands of maulvis who come into the house.”

But when sexual abuse of children involves family members, it is almost always hushed up and the child’s suffering remains hidden beneath a veil of secrecy. Ahmad concedes that while families are tightly knit and relationships are valued, this can often come in the way of unveiling incest. While there is a general denial about the issue of CSA, the denial is much more vehement when it comes to incest.

“There are many instances where even when the child has shared the truth with a parent, the reaction has been of disbelief,” Ahmad says.

The child is told that he or she must have misunderstood and is reprimanded from even ‘thinking’ along those lines about someone who is so well respected. The worst is when the child is told that he or she must be to blame. Many times, even if the child is believed, the relationship is maintained, the silence not broken so that the child has to go along with the pretence,” says Ahmad, adding that incest often carries on for years and often several siblings are abused by the same abuser.

It is the emotional manipulation rather than force that is by far the most common tactic used to abuse a child, says Bedar. Offenders commonly use secrecy and blame to coerce a child to remain a silent participant.

“Often they are trusted, respected figures and quite aware of this position. The child, too, is aware of that position. This in itself makes it hard for children to tell anyone,” adds Ahmad.

Bedar says that the abusers understand that children naturally respond to love, attention and fun, and use that to lure them into situations where they are alone and vulnerable. “In an attempt to ensure the abuse is not disclosed, they may use bribes (money, sweets, extra attention, etc.) or make the experience sound extra special — like a fun secret. They may also use threats and induce fear in the child, but rarely do they use physical force, because, if they do so, the abuse is more likely to be found out.” When the abuser is well-known or related to the child, it is even easier to manipulate her or him as they know what the child likes, dislikes and what his routine is and therefore has “more instances with the child”.

Contrary to the general belief that only girls are abused, boys were equally at risk, if not more. Neither is CSA limited to lower socio-economic, uneducated groups as many erroneously believe. “It occurs all over the world, in all regions, communities and socio-economic groups. Based on research done on the subject in Pakistan, Bedar emphasises that boys are almost as vulnerable to CSA as girls. “Culturally boys are expected to take care of themselves and are often left unprotected,” she says.