My heart dropped to my stomach as I heard my best friend wailing at the other end of the phone. Her sobs couldn’t even let her utter a word. A million worst case scenarios wracked my brain as I tried to calm her down. “He’s going to ruin me,” she finally managed between sobs. “He’s threatening to tell my father everything. I can’t take the shame. I will die.”
My friend was only 14 when she began communicating with a guy online. She was the youngest, with her siblings almost a decade older. Hers was a simple, religious family but oftentimes she felt like she was being neglected over her brothers. And now, this stranger was offering her kind and comforting words that she never knew she wanted to hear.
It was innocent at first. He made an effort to get to know her and then disclose very vague details about himself. “The name of my village is very difficult to pronounce for you, city girl. Just know that I live in Punjab and I keep travelling inter-city,” he would say to her.
It started with him wanting to hear how she sounds. Since she didn’t have a cell phone, she secretly called him from the landline. He promised he was never going to call her unless she asked him to. Then he wanted to see her. They exchanged pictures and he was “completely enamoured by her beauty”. They talked for hours online and then calls.
For two years she kept it a secret from everyone until one day when she finally told me. Very calmly, I warned her to not be too trusting as the only source of information about him was only him. She wasn’t happy and stopped talking to me for days, but came around eventually.
When we were 17, he started pestering her for some provocative images. Thankfully, she declined but that was when his attitude changed completely. Gone was the nice guy she’d known for the past 3-4 years, he was now blackmailing to expose her. And once exposed, she was dead sure that she’d never gain her family’s trust again. That’s when she called me. I vividly remember the vulnerability in her voice and how desperately I prayed for my friend’s well-being. Miraculously, the guy left her alone when she begged him to leave. Apparently, he was madly in love with her but he was gone with a poof!
Cases of predators and paedophiles preying on young children isn’t unheard of. In fact, according to a report titled ‘Cruel Numbers’ by Sahil, an NGO working against child abuse, reveals that at least 3,852 children – 2,068 girls and 1,784 boys – were sexually abused across Pakistan in 2021. Every time a heartbreaking case of a child has been highlighted, there have been conversations about protecting children, counselling and being empathetic while reporting such cases.
Similarly, when the case of a missing 15-year-old was first highlighted in April, 2022, the whole country seemed to have united on the same front. They prayed for the distraught and grieving parents to be united with their lost daughter. But all of that changed when a video of hers was shared in which she claimed to have “run away of her free will”. And before the case could reach the court of law, it reached the court of public opinions. There were two different groups: one that scoffed at the parents and girl’s upbringing, and the other group that was adamant that this is a child abduction case. This alleged elopement/kidnapping of the young child quickly became fodder for TV and social media channels.
“It was uncalled for that people were quick to shame a young child and point fingers at the parents’ upbringing like this. They were shamed because generally in our society a girl eloping to marry is considered a ‘disgrace’,” comments Journalist Afia Salam. “No one wanted to believe the father who was showing original documents that she was in fact an underage child, therefore the marriage could not have been out of free will.”
In recent developments (4th August, 2022), the court has declared the girl as a minor and was shifted to a Dar-ul-Aman in Karachi. Despite its complexities, this case isn’t the first of its kind, however the father’s dedication and unwavering trust on his daughter was definitely a first that was seen.
“We need to understand, the responsibility of safety of a child cannot be on the child, even at 18 years.” says Nirmal Niazi, a Clinical Psychologist. “Children’s brains are not fully developed which means the part of our brain which is responsible for impulse control is underdeveloped naturally in children and adolescents. Hence, the role of counselling programmes in schools should be to educate and train the adults to handle incidents and create a safer environment.”
“It’s very important to have separate counselling sessions with the parents to educate them about the dangers lurking and how to protect their children without stifling them,” opines Afia. “This is so that they don’t end up looking for comfort in someone else. You can’t stop children from using phones and tablets in this digital age. I feel that many parents are unaware of the proper working of these devices that have games with messaging services. It’s imperative that parents know about the filters available in these devices and it’s better to have an expert brief them on it.”
An active part of a child’s day is spent in school. Apart from academic guidance, there is a potential to help young children ease whatever emotional and mental struggles that they are going through. Sidra Shoaib is a PhD in Psychology, a Senior Lecturer at Bahria University Karachi and a Student Mentor. She believes if done right, student counselling can have a positive impact on a young child but there is a dearth of it in schools. “There are counsellors in schools, especially Cambridge schools, but they mostly deal with academic issues.
However, the reality is that most schools cannot afford counsellors and a single counsellor is not enough to cater to a thousand students. In this case, teachers can provide guidance for their students,” suggests Sidra. “When children hit puberty, that’s when they need more attention. They are usually struggling with relationships with their family and even themselves. At the same time they are looking to have an escape which can eventually lead them to confuse affections, attractions and love. Most students feel comfortable sharing their issues with their teachers. For instance, girls come up to me to discuss when parents are talking about their marriage or even when they are struggling with friendships or working in groups. Teachers should be given relevant training so they would know how to handle these issues.”
Nirmal is working with schools to engage teachers and adults in the system to teach safeguarding protocols for the students, as counselling can help them to show a safe option to come for help. “In this case, the conversation is around girls but I would highlight that such problems are prevalent amongst children irrespective of their gender. ‘Grooming’ is a form of manipulation from a predator to create trust and emotional attachment with a minor with the intention of sexual abuse or exploitation. It entails affection (means to an end) and creates a sense of dependency. It can have a devastating impact on children and adolescents,” explains Nirmal. “Humans crave attention, affection and they have a strong need for belongingness. Those who groom children and adolescents are aware of this vulnerability really well and know exactly how to exploit it. One may feel that they would not be unwise but that’s not always the case. Once an attachment is formed, it can be a powerful manipulative force to alter behaviour and get the other person to do things they would never have thought they would.”
“It is important to note that children who have a strong bond with their family still can be manipulated. It’s because the parents are already involved in the child’s life, they would be able to pick up on cues if something out of the ordinary was happening,” cautions Nirmal.
While the case of the 15-year-old girl is ongoing, it has once again shed light on some burning questions regarding child marriages, free will, grooming of young minds, the overall safety of children and the gaping holes in our laws.
Usually when a child is going through an inner conflict or is struggling, there are some signs that guardians or parents can look out for. “From the get-go, it will affect academics. Children may get extremely quiet, hide their phones when using it, withdrawal from social settings, disruptive sleep patterns, bouts of aggression are just some of the red flags one should look out for,” informs Sidra.
Nirmal adds that frequent crying, unexplained irritable behaviour, changes in eating habits, night terrors, losing interest in activities they loved and resisting to go meet someone, expressing discomfort or fear to be around someone or going over to some place are also some key signs.
“In this case, parents must try to be friends with the children and engage in activities with them. Never try to distance them with their friends, instead keep a watchful eye.
Observe their friendships by hosting parties for them at home. Educate them about their space and boundaries so they can keep themselves safe. I remember that my parents would always ask about our day during dinner and have meaningful, open conversations.
I feel that is a very good way to build a bond. Remember that healthy communications will build healthy relationships. Children need your time more than they need your money,” emphasises Sidra.
Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises any person under the age of 18 as a child. The Child Marriage Restraint Act states that a girl can marry at 16 and a boy at 18 years of age. Only in Sindh is the marriageable age 18 years for both men and women. Federal and provincial laws provide penalties for those that allow child marriage to take place or for a man to marry an underage girl. However, the laws do not declare a marriage void once it has taken place. The law is effective to prevent a child marriage but once a marriage has taken place, it’s anyone’s guess as to how things will move further. Some parents remain quiet to not attract attention and allow a marriage to continue even if it violates family rules and breaks the law, which didn’t happen in this case.
Apart from child marriages, what becomes of the children seeking protection from toxic environments at their home? Is there some form of refuge for them?
“Under the law, minors (children under the age of 18) can receive protection under the following circumstances: if the child is victim of violence, abuse and exploitation (whether physical, psychological or sexual); or where the child is a victim of human trafficking or drug trafficking. This involves cases of when there is a risk of a child being forced into severe form of child labour, being used for begging or is at a risk of being sold into prostitution,” shares John Hussain, a Lawyer, Lecturer and a Counsellor.
“Now, there are officially two types of shelter homes for children, the ones that are run by the government, and the others that are licensed by the government (run by the NGOs in coordination with the government). Even though these shelters are available, it begs a few questions: how many vulnerable children are being accommodated by these homes? Is the child actually safe? Are there adequate measures taken to provide them their needs and security? Do these shelters and orphanages have checks and balances to ensure that there are no harmful practices taking place which can put a child at risk? So, unless there is a strong oversight and strict implementation of law, there is no way to say for sure. It seems as though Sindh Child Protection Authority has been especially inefficient when it comes to cases of beggary, child labour or underage forced marriages.”
Over the years, Hussain has counselled children from ages 10 years to 18. In his experience, he observes that many rebellious behaviours in young children begin when the child feels neglected at home or has a troubled household. “I have noticed that in Pakistan, especially Karachi, drug abuse is prevalent in youngsters. And while there can be a thrill of experimentation, it mostly stems from households where children use drug abuse or engage in risk-taking behaviour as a coping mechanism where they are either severely suppressed or have been made to overindulge, or if there is a lack parental attachment and emotional connection,” he informs.
“Many factors need to be considered while assessing a child’s capacity to consent such as the child’s age, mental maturity and capacity to understand the issue at hand, the consequences involved, advantages and disadvantages of their behaviour and long-term impact,” elucidates Nirmal.
When dealing with cases relating to children – whether it’s reporting in the media, handling it in the court of law or in homes and schools – it requires certain sensitivity and empathy.
The writer tweets as @AdeelaAkmal
& can be reached at email@example.com