“On the morning of January 12, a school watchman in Ibrahim Haidri, an impoverished fishing neighbourhood of Karachi, had a narrow escape from a grisly death.
Dozens of enraged residents had ransacked the school building and tried to burn him alive. He had been accused of molesting an underage schoolgirl and his life was saved by the heavy contingent of police who arrived on the scene, arrested him and dispersed the lynch mob.
The incident occurred on the third day of public grief and anger in Pakistan over the abduction, rape and subsequent murder of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari in the Kasur district in Punjab province. The Kasur tragedy has not only sparked countrywide protests but also initiated a debate on the taboo subject of child sexual abuse and its prevalence.
Zainab disappeared in Kasur on January 4 while returning to her aunt’s house from a Quranic studies class. Her body was found five days later on a rubbish heap. The autopsy revealed she had been raped and sodomised before being strangled to death.
Kasur has a history of paedophile scandals. In August 2015, police arrested seven members of a gang which had preyed on scores of children for several years, coercing them into making sex videos and then blackmailing their families by threatening to sell the recording.
According to statistics compiled by Sahil, an NGO based in Islamabad working on children protection with special focus on sexual abuse, 129 cases of assault on a child — including abduction, rape, attempted rape and sodomy — were recorded in 2017. In 2016, the number was 141.
Zainab’s murder had sparked outrage across the country but in her hometown of Kasur demonstrations turned violent, with angry mobs trying to attack the homes of government officials and members of parliament. At least two people were killed and several injured on January 10 in violent clashes between the local residents and police.
The police have yet to arrest anyone but a fotofit image of a suspect has been released. Malik Ahmed Khan, spokesman for the provincial government, said the suspect had been identified through CCTV footage with help of the state forensic experts and that law enforcement agencies were carrying out raids in different parts of the province in search of the alleged culprit.
Statistics compiled by children’s rights advocates paint a distressing picture of child abuse not only in Kasur but throughout Pakistan. In first six months of 2017, a total of 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported nationwide, and 4,139 cases of child abuse were recorded in the whole of 2016, according to Sahil. Most of the cases — 62 per cent — were reported in Punjab, the largest and most populous province in Pakistan, followed by Sindh province (27 per cent).
But activists believe that the real number of such cases is much higher due to a reluctance to report them — or even acknowledge them — because of social taboos and the insensitive attitude of the police.
Hussain, who wished to use only his surname, lives in Rawalpindi district and is the father of two young daughters. In February last year, he registered a complaint at his local police station against a male teacher after one of his daughters told him he had touched her private parts.
“But because of police’s insensitive attitude and the lengthy and expensive judiciary process, I took back my case,” he said.
Rana Asif Habib, head of the Initiator Human Development Foundation, a Karachi-based child rights body, said children were sexually abused everywhere by everyone — by relatives at homes, by people in the street and at school but most cases are not reported.
“Victim children and even their parents are afraid to come forward for fear of being blamed for the abuse and it is very common in socially conservative societies of Pakistan and other South Asian Countries,” said Mr Habib.
Activists working on child protection also stress the importance of including sex education in the school curriculum to make children aware of sexual abuse and how to deal with it. However, they have to balance their demands with using careful terminology, such as “self-protection knowledge” instead of sexual abuse to avoid offending religious and cultural taboos.
Shahzad Roy, a well-known singer and activist who took part in a protest held in solidarity with Zainab’s parents, said the state had a responsibility to create awareness among children and parents by including basic education about consent and personal autonomy in the school curriculum. “It can help the children in identifying, preventing and responding to incidents of sexual abuses,” he said
In a session of the national assemble on January 12, members from both the government and the opposition also demanded texts on sexual harassment be made part of the curriculum in schools and religious seminaries.
However, religious parties are voicing objections to those calls, saying they are conspiring to deprive the young generation of Islamic ideology and principles. Aniq Ahmed Tabish, a student leader of Jammat-e-Islami, one of the country’s influential Islamist parties, called Mr Roy’s proposal to include sex education an attack on Pakistan’s ideological base.
“In taking advantage of the Kasur tragedy, some forces have again become active to change the syllabus. But Pakistan’s religious forces will resist such attempts,” Mr Tabish said.
In the past, religious parties have succeeded in preventing such efforts. In 2011, Dr Mobin Akthar, a Karachi psychiatrist, caused a furore with his book, Sex Education for Muslims, which aimed to educate Pakistanis about sexual matters. He received threats after religious parties accused him of spreading pornography and some bookshops refused to sell his book.”