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Opinion

January 20, 2018

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Act before the tragedy

It was in August 2015 that the massive child sexual abuse ring in Kasur came to light. The incidents were reported from Hussain Khanwala, a small farming village near the Pak-India border.

In what has been termed as the largest sex abuse incident, there were hundreds of boys, aged between eight and 15, who were sexually assaulted and videotaped by the perpetrators to blackmail the victims and their families. Reportedly, over 280 videos surfaced showing that the victims were often drugged before being sexually abused. The hair-raising stories of the victims and their families affected every Pakistani deeply. And then like every Pakistani we forgot all about these stories and the dust started settling down on the issue.

Unable to offer anything except our sympathies to the bereaved families, everyone forgot Kasur in the hope that the perpetrators would certainly be brought to justice. The government ordered investigations, inquiries and issued a number of press statements calling for the perpetrators to be charged. But nothing happened. Some perpetrators were arrested, only to be released later – although two people were sentenced to life.

Two years later Kasur once again made national and international headlines. This time it was the brutal rape and death of a seven-year-old Zainab that jolted the local an foreign media.

The child is no more but her tragic death has left dozens of questions to be answered by Pakistan’s law-enforcement-agencies, human rights watchdogs and society at large. Zainab was on her way home from a tuition centre when she was kidnapped. Her body was recovered from a heap of trash five days after she went missing. A post-mortem examination revealed the minor girl was raped before being strangled to death. She was buried in her ancestral graveyard in Road Kot leaving the entire district Kasur in deep shock.

This, however, was only a part of the story as it turned out that Zainab was the twelfth girl to have been subjected to this brutality. Eleven more cases of a similar nature had already occurred in the same neighbourhood over the last 14 months. Her death triggered violent demonstrations across the city. People came out on the streets demanding that the perpetrators be brought to book.

Eleven children are sexually abused every day in Pakistan, according to a survey conducted by a non-governmental organisation, Sahil, though many more cases are thought to go unreported. In 2016, the number of reported child abuse cases stood at a staggering, 4,139. A total of 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported from across the country in the first half of 2017 alone as compared to the 2,127 cases for the same period reported in 2016, Sahil’s statistics reveal.

Punjab remained on top of the list with 62 percent of the total cases followed by Sindh where 27 percent cases of sexual abuse were recorded. The organisation recorded 3,508 cases in 2014, 56 percent of it from Punjab with Kasur among the top 10 districts where from the highest number of cases were reported. The data further reveals that 445 cases were recorded in Kasur from 2012 to 2014.

The body of a seven-year-old girl lying in a dumpster for four to five days is a question mark on the country’s laws and their implementation. And, despite this alarming situation, the overall state of child protection infrastructure has never been a priority of the government.

The National Commission on Human Rights in its recent report has said that Zainab’s murder is an example of the ineptitude of the authorities that have failed to address the issue in an appropriate manner to curb its recurrence. The commission outlined solid recommendations in a report handed over to the district administration after the Kasur incident surfaced in 2015; however no concrete steps were taken.

Pakistan is a signatory to various international treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Pornography. These conventions call for proper legislation to be done on the issue in accordance with these treaties but that is yet to happen. It is unfortunate that only two of the country’s provinces – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh – have suitable child protection laws.

Punjab’s Destitute and Neglected Children Act, 2004 with its limited role can hardly do anything for sexually abused children and its government is yet to approve the long-awaited Punjab Child Protection Policy, 2006. Many other regions have no child protection laws at all. There is a list of reasons for effective legislation to not have been introduced; these include lack of a policy document, a plan of action, a proper mechanism and strategies regarding their implementation.

Those keeping an eye on child rights issues believe there is a dire need for widespread awareness of child-related laws among the stakeholders as well as enforcers of the criminal justice system which includes the police, judiciary and lawyers.

There is a need to create awareness about how to protect oneself from sexual abuse. This should be made a part of the school curriculum in a culturally sensitive manner, by introducing culturally and religiously appropriate material on the subject. To that end, engaging with the religious clergy is of immense importance and an enhanced role of the media is also recommended.

The media can play a vital role in fostering coordination with the civil society and the government for creating widespread awareness. Youth and children focused media channels are one of the most important tools to educate children on the subject matter. An already traumatised Pakistani nation can hardly afford to have another such incident and should act well before another tragedy occurs.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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