A state of emergency

August 29, 2021

Over the last few years, countless cases of sexual violence and child abuse have been reported. How do we keep moving on from one gut-wrenching incident of sexual violence to another?

Photos by Rahat Dar
Photos by Rahat Dar

I was around 10 years old, playing out in the garden with my female cousins at my house, when a man came at the gate on a motorbike and called me over. With no idea about potential danger or intention of such strangers, a young innocent child went to see him. He was asking for directions while pointing downwards, flashing his private parts. I remember being frozen in place. A few seconds or minutes might have passed, but it seemed like an eternity. He told me to send another cousin and I complied, in shock and fear. I was under a shadow of dread in the months that followed. I felt ashamed of myself because I saw a man flash, with no fault of my own. I felt responsible for sending another cousin to that beast, to see what no child should see. I could not tell my mother or another trusted adult about it because I did not know how to process this incident. We had never discussed such topics in school or at home. At 10 years of age, this was my first experience of sexual harassment; it was not the last one.

Many years down the lane, I realised that most women I know personally, have been groped, harassed and subjected to flashing at some point in their life, irrespective of their age, outlook, locality or time of the day. As we grow older, most of the women learn to occupy less and less space as a defence mechanism. The fear and trauma are so enriched in our existence, that in crowded places, the auto-pilot response of our mind is to stay on high alert, and our bodies are rigid with tension.

This high prevalence of sexual abuse and violence has now been brought to the forefront because of social media. Unfortunately, we are not a society that is fond of acknowledging its shortcomings and making amends. A mob of 400 people assaulting a woman during Independence Day celebrations for 3 hours, recorded on social media, made it hard for a while even the staunchest custodians of social integrity to look away. This is a national emergency. It is hard to deny the magnitude of the problem, judging by the shocking news stories in the last few weeks.

Noor Mukaddam beheaded by a family friend

Wife and mother of 4, Quratul Ain brutally killed by husband

Corpse dug up from grave and raped

Over the last few years, countless cases of sexual violence and child abuse have been reported. How do we keep moving on from one gut-wrenching incident of sexual violence to another? Why is it that as women, we have to live in constant fear for ourselves and our children? Where do we go from here?

The first step is to acknowledge and accept the severity of this rot. Ask women around you if they have ever been stalked, harassed or catcalled and you will find out. The fact of the matter is that women have always felt unsafe even in crowded places. The safety of half the population has been ignored for so long that everyday harassment, abuse and catcalling has been normalised.

It took only few days for people to shift the blame from a mob of 400 harassers to a defenceless girl who was assaulted in the open. Resorting to victim blaming as a defence mechanism is the norm here. Whether the survivor was a TikToker or travelling late night on Motorway, the act of violence was committed by the offenders. Any prejudice against survivor takes away the responsibility from the offender, even if partially. It is important to understand that victim blaming is going to further intensify such incidents because when we question the victim’s role, we are providing impunity to the abuser and enabling acts of sexual violence, as a society.

Photos by Rahat Dar
Photos by Rahat Dar

Start by giving the right education to young people in schools and at home. This long-term structural reform is crucial for the years to come.

Sexual abuse and violence are a consequence of power dynamics. Historically speaking, it is the patriarchal structure that gives men a sense of empowerment, control and domination over women. Women at home are the ‘honour-bearers’ for the family. Other women are considered inferior and mere sexual objects. In both roles, women lack bodily autonomy and agency to make their own choices. Understanding and respecting consent is one of the most critical areas requiring immediate attention and allocation of resources.

Start by giving the right education to young people in schools and at home. This long-term structural reform is crucial for the years to come. According to a survey conducted in public schools in Lahore by Nur Foundation with 1,125 adolescents, 58 percent of young people thought that it was not normal to experience feelings and emotions and 78 percent remained silent/ did nothing when they felt angry. Young people are not taught to regulate their feelings and emotions. This often leads to frustration. Similarly, puberty and body autonomy are still taboo topics. Young people are naturally curious with lack of age-appropriate and authentic information, 42 percent of adolescents were unaware or thought it was not normal to experience changes during puberty. While teaching about gender and body protection, consent and respectful boundaries should be core themes. In this age of information, it is critical that young people have access to trained teachers and counselors to ask questions and share their problems. Additionally, healthy activities such as sports should be encouraged in schools and colleges to keep the young people engaged in a productive manner.

The media must play a positive role in this regard. Regressive content on media is common. It reinforces the prejudices against women and trans people. Reflection is critical. Media content should be monitored by gender specialists to ensure that the content being produced is gender sensitive. All journalists need sensitisation training to report cases of sexual violence and harassment and to perform their journalistic duty with integrity and to refrain from victim blaming. The government can partner with NGOs already working in the field with years of experience in these areas. Gender sensitisation training should be mandatory for all public office holders especially policymakers and the police. The government needs to ensure that the police force is responsive and well trained to deal with cases of sexual abuse and violence.

Sexual violence needs to take priority in the national discourse. The society has looked away for far too long and predictably, this has made things worse for everyone. It is becoming less convenient to look away and pretend that this is all a big, bad conspiracy. There should be honest, critical and informative discussion on addressing sexual crimes at the policy level, in parliament and universities, religious institutions and media, to find the right solutions. Half of the country’s population feels fearful, anxious and unsafe right now. All of us want Pakistan to be known as one of the safest countries for trans people, women and children. The onus is not on children, women, or their clothes or character; the onus is on the state to take action now; and on the men to do better.

The writer is a    development sector professional. Areas of her work include communication, advocacy, youth leadership and community mobilisation. She can be reached on Twitter: @stariq88

A state of emergency