What happened to seven-year-old Zainab is unimaginably horrific. We dare not even allow our minds to consider what the small child must have gone through in those hours after her abduction on January 4 and through the hours or days she was held in captivity by the man who brutally raped her before hurling her body onto a garbage heap in her native Kasur. What is also appalling is the manner in which politicians have jumped to earn as much mileage as they can from the mutilated corpse of a little girl with sparkling eyes. The chief minister of Punjab has rushed – as he usually reduces himself to doing – to ‘comfort’ her parents, as if it were possible to pat away grief mainly by his presence. PTI leader Imran Khan has done the same and also used the tragedy to drive home his campaign against the PML-N government. So have Tahirul Qadri and Bilawal Bhutto. All these politicians, and the others who have joined them, perhaps forget that child rape and murder is not unique to one place and – as per statistics – is a horrifying reality in their home provinces too, even within their constituencies and neighbourhoods. Bilawal in particular might want to recall a time when perpetrators of rape and those who let loose dogs on women during panchayats clearly enjoyed the protection of those sitting in the Sindh Assembly. This should, however, be no reason for the PML-N to feel better; the province it governs has witnessed as many organised crimes against women and little girls as any other province in the country.
According to international figures, 11 children are sexually abused each day in Pakistan. Most cases involve rape or sodomy – often followed by death. The vast majority are girls. Many cases of sexual abuse are never reported. Almost each day, as we go through the papers, we find horrific cases, many buried among inconsequential news as if the rape or even the murder of a child were a non-event. There have been incidents of little girls whose bodies were cut into pieces and thrown in gutters after being raped. Other children have suffered almost equal brutality elsewhere. In the current case, we have the chief justice, the president, the prime minister, celebrities and others rushing to claim a place for themselves in the tragedy. Their grief is real. But what about the thousands of other children who suffer terrible abuse each year? What about those we never hear from because they have in some way been silenced?
Have the perpetrators of the child pornography and exploitation racket that broke in Kasur in 2015 met the fate they deserve? The PML-N government – the Punjab government, in particular – and the judiciary need to explain. Tahirul Qadri, Imran Khan and Bilawal etc should perhaps care to enlighten us why that scandal failed to move their conscience. For years, between 2006 and 2015, an entire village in the Kasur area was traumatised by a gang engaged in making pornographic videos involving children, selling them overseas and extracting extortion money from families. Even so terrible an act did not result in action against those at the centre of the gang. Denials came in and we were told it was all a land dispute. How many lies will we continue to be told?
Change will not come if we continue to accept a highly brutalised society where terrible incidents such as the killing of Mashal Khan by his peers, the burning of a couple accused of blasphemy, and the brutal lynching of two brothers alleged to have committed theft take place. All this occurs against a backdrop of hypocrisy and a veil of silence. We talk about morality and religion in society, but fail to protect the most vulnerable members of this society – our children, notably those who come from lower income backgrounds and are most exposed to the evils they face on the streets. At the moment, 1.2 million children are missing from their homes across the country, notably in our largest cities. All of them are at terrible risk. Yes, Zainab’s murderer must be apprehended and the police must be held accountable for what they did and didn’t do to prevent the crime, and during the disturbances that followed in the course of which two men are reported to have died at the hands of the police. But we should also be more willing to face our demons and try and counter the horrific brutalisation which has become a part of our everyday reality.