According to UNICEF, sexual violence against children is recognised internationally as one of the most severe violations of their human rights and almost the worst form of child abuse and exploitation. It can have severe, long-term and even life-threatening effects on a child’s physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional and social development. Despite it being a gross violation of innocent lives, it is yet prevalent in all countries of the world and across all social groups.
The case of seven-year-old Zainab from Kasur is still fresh in everyone’s mind and yet we continue to battle with this heinous crime. According to a report by Sahil, in Pakistan, there are eight children abused every day in the country. And, these numbers are derived from only the cases that have actually been reported.
With ongoing incidents of child abuse being reported daily in Pakistan, recently Catwalk Cares in collaboration with NGO Search for Justice Pakistan chaired a solution-summit ‘Child Sexual Abuse – The Way Forward’ in Karachi, after its impactful ‘Stop Child Abuse Conference’ held the year before it. The all-important forum brought together individuals from diverse spheres including entertainment, government and political leadership as well as experts from academia and civil society to discuss proactive solutions to the systemic scourge of child sexual abuse.
The sessions dealt with the issue of child sexual abuse at three distinct levels: identifying its root cause; the role of the media in creating awareness and the recommendations of myriad experts that were later shared with Federal and Provincial Government(s) to ensure the implementation of laws to protect children from sexual abuse.
The first session ‘Cruel Numbers – Statistical Data of Child Sexual Abuse Cases’ was presented by Mr Atif Khan the Legal Aid Coordinator from the NGO Sahil. The numbers quoted in the presentation were frightening since they represented actual people. The organisation has compiled its signature publication ‘Cruel Numbers 2019’ by the monitoring of 84 national and regional newspapers, daily. The monitored data shows that a total number of 2846 cases have been reported in newspapers during the year 2019. These cases were reported from all four provinces including Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit Baltistan (GB).
In the year 2019, the reporting of child abuse cases has decreased by 26 per cent as compared to the year 2018. 2019’s reported cases indicate that 8 children are abused every day in Pakistan.
Age-wise information shows that children are most vulnerable to abuse in the age group 6-15 years. More boys than girl victims were reported. Unfortunately, the research also shows that children as young as 0-5 years are also sexually abused.
Although it is important to note that women also sexually abuse and exploit children and adolescents, but the majority of perpetrators, around 90 per cent in most studies, are male. Moreover, from the total number of 3722 abusers that were identified, 2222 were the acquaintances of the victims.
The panel discussion that followed these numbers consisted of Shaniera Akram, Adnan Malik, Shafaat Ali and TV journalist George Fulton, moderated by journalist Sidra Iqbal. This panel highlighted the movement ‘Polish Man Campaign’ which was introduced in Pakistan by philanthropist and activist Shaniera Akram. The campaign is targeted in eradicating the ‘taboo’ mindset from the roots and emphasised on the importance of discussing the issue at homes. “This topic may be a little uncomfortable to talk about but what’s more uncomfortable is watching the child, you gave birth to, in pain because you didn’t do anything about it. All the causes of child abuse we talked about today, the court system, the police, and how it’s all changing, but you take away a certain percentage of the heinous numbers that results in deaths that we could’ve protected. One thing that’s common about these cases is that the child couldn’t tell anyone because no one believed them; no one listened to them or because they were scared of their parents were going to react and tell them that they were lying and they were the shame. I put that on the parents. Yes, we wait for the authorities and the police systems to change but it is our responsibility to listen to them, believe them and understand them. You need to give them a safe place and protect them from the abuse that’s happening at home right now,” enunciated Shaniera.
The report also said that out of the total 2846 cases more than half (53 per cent) cases reported from Punjab, 30 per cent cases from Sindh, 7 per cent cases from Islamabad capital territory, 6 per cent cases from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), 2 per cent cases from Balochistan, and less from Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Gilgit Baltistan (GB). So, why are the numbers higher in Punjab than other provinces in Pakistan? The second session dealt with this question which was presented by Sarah Ahmad, Chairperson, Child Protection Welfare Bureau. According to her, there were many NGOs working towards bettering the situation in Punjab and there was a lot more awareness in the province compared to others. We need to create more awareness in other provinces as well and make systemic changes that provide refuge to women and children looking for any kind of help in the matter.
Speaking of awareness, the media plays a pivotal role when it comes to disseminating a message. One of the panel discussions shed light on the matter. Moderated by Fifi Haroon, Senior Broadcast Journalist and Presenter for the BBC World Service, touched upon how international and national media campaigns are helping highlight the issue of child abuse. The panel consisted of actor-cum-activists Sarwat Gilani, Ahsan Khan and Faysal Quraishi some of whom have performed in serials with child abuse themes and are parents of young children. Dramas such as ‘Haiwaan’, ‘Meri Guriya’, Udaari’ and ‘Roag’ have highlighted and impacted the cause as people started having conversations about the matter at home. The panel agreed that while there were hurdles when it came to broadcasting these shows, it was necessary that shows like such are created to inform the public. “There are no two opinions on the matter that we have to send the message across. Television is the best medium in our country which can create an impact, by hammering this message. Alongside entertainment, educating the masses on these issues is absolutely imperative,” enthused Ahsan Khan.
Sarwat Gillani also pitched in saying that it was important to highlight the message in different languages, “Child abuse is an issue beyond racial, gender and cultural barriers and there are many languages spoken in our country. The media is responsible in this matter too, that they should highlight the message in all the languages spoken in Pakistan.”
Reiterating Shaniera’s point, it’s important to listen to your child and believe them when they tell you that something is wrong. The first step always begins at home, start protecting your children by listening to them, this is the way forward.