Last month, Pakistan was in the national and international media for all the wrong reasons. In an astounding disclosure, the city of Kasur in the Punjab province turned out to be a hub of child sex abuse being perpetrated in an orchestrated manner for many years. Reportedly, in the largest-ever child abuse scandal in the country's history, around 400 video recordings with more than 280 children being forced to have sex were recovered from a criminal gang in the city.
Most of the victims were under 14 and included even a six-year-old boy and a 10-year-old school girl who had also been filmed. Later on, it was discovered that these heinous activities of the gang started in 2006 and since then hundreds of children have become their victims. There are many others who have remained silent just for the sake of saving their family's honour. In this whole episode, there was a commercial aspect as well. The criminals sold pornographic videos in the international market and earned exorbitant prices as child pornography has been criminalised in most of the countries. And the sad part is that in Pakistan, there is no law yet on child pornography.
These child abusers would show the video clips to the parents of the abused children. They would force them to remain silent and pay them money for keeping the affair secret. According to a report of the fact-finding mission of Madadgar National Helpline - a forum working for women and children in distress - some victims stated that they told their mothers who approached the abusers but the latter always threatened them about leaking the videos and the parents had no choice but to remain silent.
The police have arrested the accused and endless promises are being made to give them exemplary punishments. The ruling party is also being condemned for failing to stop this crime and arrest the culprits for almost a decade. But the real problem is that this case is simply being taken as an isolated one and all the focus is on the numbers. Not much is being said about the reasons that make children vulnerable to assaults and ways to stop this abuse from happening.
According to UNICEF, one the biggest reasons of child abuse are the lack of proper law enforcement, negligence of parents and lack of awareness among the children and the society about this issue. The easy access of potential abusers (who can be called predators) to children due to the negligence of parents is another reason for the increasing incidence of child abuse.
This week You! looks into the issue and focuses on how parents, especially mothers, can play a role in saving their children from abusive attacks. The debate on how far they can go on in explaining sexual abuse to their children in the presence of a yawning generation gap by creating awareness and educating them on the topic has also been featured in this write-up.
According to Misbah Khalid, Programme Coordinator, Aangan - Rozan, an organisation working to stop child sex abuse in Pakistan, various campaigns should be planned with the objective to target the overall communities.
"The target must be to educate children, young people and their families. In a country like Pakistan, it is very difficult to talk about sexual violence in general but it is even more difficult to acknowledge that sexual violence against children including infants happens frequently. Child sexual abuse remains largely out of view. The prevalence ratio of child sexual abuse is much more than its coverage in the media. When child sexual abuse is covered, the focus is usually on an incident, often the one that involves serious injury or death. It is rare for the media to highlight the issue including its prevalence, various types of sexual abuse, the effects and the protective mechanisms needed for the safety of our children," informs Misbah.
"An important element of prevention is to promote healthier communication between parents and children - not just about child sexual abuse but other issues as well. This sort of open communication can be portrayed through plays and different programmes on TV and other social media," stresses Misbah.
Regarding awareness Misbah suggests, "Media should highlight the importance of life skills such as improved self awareness and self esteem, better communication skills, healthier ways to resolve conflict and cope with their feelings. This can be done through fun yet informative children programmes. More time needs to be slotted specifically for children programming."
Through such programmes we can help our children to become more confident and emotionally strong. This will also go a long way towards giving them the courage to speak out.
"Talking to children about any topic not just sexual abuse must be done keeping the development age of the child in mind. Children often know more than what elders think they do. So, a good place to start from is to ask them what they know about protecting themselves from people who may want to harm them or make them uncomfortable," she explains.
According to Misbah, there is a range of different resource materials which includes animations, workbooks and games designed by experts for children of different age groups in a culturally sensitive manner. "Exposure to this material enhances the emotional health of children with specific focus on raising awareness on body protection and also on ways that children can use to protect themselves. All these materials as well as conversations with children about sexual abuse almost never requires going into explicit details," she states.
Zaigham Khan, a development sector expert and communication specialist based in Islamabad, informs, "In our part of the world, the biggest problem is the taboo over debating the issue and imparting sex education to children. Our children grow up without understanding changes in their own bodies and without any guidance to deal with these changes and the challenges they face as a result of them. They are not equipped to deal with adults making inappropriate demands on them. Therefore, they become an easy prey to those who want to exploit them."
"Educationists have not produced materials that can be used to educate children about sexual issues and equipping them to deal with situations of harassment and abuse. Similarly, no guidance has been made available to parents about guiding and supervising their children," he laments.
There is a dire need to educate children in this regard so that they are aware of the dynamics of sex abuse. And most importantly this generation gap between children and parents must end. "If we don't teach this to them they will learn it the hard way," says Zaigham.
Parents and children in Pakistan don't usually talk about sexual exploitation. This gap in communication needs to be bridged at the educational/institutional level. Psychological health counsellors must be available at ALL schools to encourage children to report exploitation and blackmail as well as to seek guidance on issues they would never broach with their parents. Such trained counsellors must be able to serve as a bridge between the parents and police to resolve issues of exploitation in confidence and behind the scenes.
Adnan Rehmat, a media analyst and activist, thinks that any policy on getting this message across should be linked with emotional and psychological health education and attached to the larger health policies. "A more acceptable way for children to be counselled about dangers and types of sexual exploitation is better addressed at the school level where there is an 'educational' rather than an 'administrative' environment. However, at the school level, this service should be delivered by trained counsellors who should be able to hold special long-duration classes for all students at least once or twice a year," he shares.
Sobia Qadir, Advocate from Madadgar National Helpline says, "Sometimes your own relative, acquaintance, or your servant can be a predator. So, it's very important for mothers to educate children on different forms of sexual abuse and also to keep a vigilant eye on their growing kids. They should keep track of their activities and should not allow their kids to play or mingle with any one alone. They should try to develop a comfort level with their kids so that if any thing goes wrong with them, they can talk about it without any hesitation."