Malala Yusufzai, shot at by the Taliban, providentially saved and taken out of the country to become the youngest Nobel laureate hit the world headlines in 2012. But thousands of victims of child abuse and attacks that is rampant and rising in Pakistan have not been so lucky.
Pakistani film ‘Bol’, seen and appreciated in many countries, has highlighted the sordid phenomenon wherein a young boy sent work is sodomized and when the father gets to know of it, he smothers the boy to death. And he is unrepentant.
It is an issue the society seeks to sweep under the carpet. The governments, both federal and provincial, are lax about it. Statistics are poorly gathered and maintained. Legislation is poor and existing laws are not implemented.
Courts to deal with child abuse are few and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, easily the worst-affected, has only last week got its first-ever court exclusively to deal with child abuse. That was done amidst fanfare, with help from the British Government and NGOs.
The society as a whole smirks at the phenomenon. Worse, child abuse is its part and parcel in that minor girls are married. With boys, it is called ‘bacchabazi’. It is more a subject of social humour.
Generally, in Pakistan, children are taught to be submissive and expected to tolerate violence. The relationship between children and elders or adults is not based on mutual trust and affection but suppressive and forceful obedience. Violence against children is often considered normal and acceptable within the family, schools, madrassas and different social spheres in Pakistan.
A dozen kids are abused and at times, killed, every day. By January-June 2018, that figure was reached, recording a 32 percent increase over the same period in 2017. The Nation newspaper reported that the year ended with a three-year old girl, Faryal, abused and murdered.
Sahil, a non-governmental organization, reveals that 2,322 children were abused from January to June, 2018 compared to the 1,764 child abuse cases reported in the first six months of 2017 from all over Pakistan.
Cases of child sexual abuse of boys had increased by 47 percent whereas those of girls’ sexual abuse had increased by 22pc in 2018 as compared to 2017. Children between 6 and 15 are the most vulnerable age group to sexual abuse and exploitation in Pakistan.
According to a BBC Urdu report, the statistics presented in the National Assembly in February, 2018 revealed that in the last five years, as many as 17,862, cases of sexual abuse were reported from across the country, the gender breakdown of the statistics highlighted that 10,620 girls and 7,242 boys were sexually abused in the last five years under review.
Child abuse is a fact long-hidden in Pakistan, shrouded in the silence of stigma. A recent government report reveals that child sexual abuse is disturbingly common in Pakistan, with 141 cases reported in the city of Lahore alone since January 2018. Police say that at least 77 girls and 79 boys were raped or sexually assaulted.
The report stated that none of the suspects had yet been convicted. That’s unsurprising given that the criminal justice system in Pakistan, from the time police receive a complaint until trials are completed, is not fit for credibly and expeditiously investigating crimes, and fairly prosecuting those responsible.
Poorly trained police often refuse to register complaints or investigate. Instead, they subject the victim to mistreatment and humiliation. And nowhere is this more obvious than in cases of sexual assault.
Child rape cases do not easily shock Pakistan. But the frequency last year did arouse protests with rape and murder of 7-year-old Zainab Ansari in Kasur, Punjab province, the rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and the rape of a 6-year-old girl in Sukkur, Sindh province. They occurred in a span of a few days.
The Nation reported, “instead of improving protection services and initiating criminal justice system reforms, authorities are promoting populist measures, like pursuing the death penalty or even public executions.”
The Supreme Court last year upheld the conviction of Imran Ali, who was charged with the rape and murder of at least nine girls. “He was able to carry out his crime spree for so long because the police had failed to act promptly on previous complaints against him.”
Another threat to the minors in Pakistan comes from the militants who abound and are nurtured – no matter all the claims of action against them by successive governments.
Militants target young boys and girls. They are opposed to the girls’ education as per the religious tenets they wrongly perceive. Pakistan’s tribal areas, one of them where Malala was born and grew up, are most vulnerable. Still, the media reports these cases with the prefix, “alleged militants”, to save its skin.
In one such case in August last year, “alleged militants attacked and burned down at least 12 schools in Diamer district of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region early on August 3, 2018. Global NGO Human Rights Watch said that at least half were girls’ schools. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The report issued from New York said: “The devastating attacks on schools in Diamer highlight the dangers that many students and teachers in Pakistan face on a regular basis,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at HRW, recommending: “The government should promptly investigate and prosecute these attacks and ensure that children have a safe place to attend school.”
Overall, Pakistan faces significant education challenges, with an estimated 25 million children out of school. Militant violence has disrupted the education of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly girls. Militant Islamist groups, including the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and their affiliates, attack schools and universities to foster intolerance and exclusion, target symbols of the government, and particularly to drive girls out of school.
Militants have previously targeted girls’ schools in Diamer district. In February 2004, attackers destroyed nine schools, eight of them for girls. Explosives hit two girls’ schools in December 2011.
The nongovernmental awareness campaign Alif Ailaan reported that Diamer is the lowest-ranked district in terms of quality of education in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and is among the 10 lowest ranked in the country. Only 3,479 girls are among the 16,800 students enrolled in government schools in the district, which has 88 government schools for girls and 156 for boys.
After the Taliban took over large parts of the Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2007, it began a violent campaign against education for girls. Over 900 girls’ schools were forced to close and over 120,000 girls stopped attending school. About 8,000 female teachers were driven out of work. For many girls, the loss was permanent, and they were not able to return to school even after the army displaced the Taliban.
The Pakistani government’s response is poor. It says it does not collect specific data on attacks on schools and universities, or on deaths and injuries from such attacks. However, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were 867 attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 fatalities and 724 injuries. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attock recorded at least 203 attacks on schools in Pakistan between 2013 and 2017.
The government’s failure to keep consistent and transparent national data about such attacks raises serious concerns about its ability to track repairs of damaged schools, identify trends that could help create measures to protect schools, or investigate and prosecute the people responsible, HRW said.
Pakistan’s hour of shame came on December 16, 2014 when the Army Public School in Peshawar was attacked. It killed at least 145 people, mostly students and directed international spotlight on the threat to education in Pakistan.
The HRW report notes that in some areas, government forces have used educational institutions, including both schools and college housing, as temporary or permanent barracks or military bases. When educational facilities are used for military purposes, it places them at increased risk of attack.
The government should issue clear and public orders to Pakistan security forces to curtail the military use of schools, the report says.
Significantly, social response is abysmal. The society as a whole frowns upon such reports. “It appears to be more an effort at sensationalization of this fact that child abuse is a known event throughout the world,” a reader typically observes in Dawn newspaper.
There seems little chance of relief for the abused children in Pakistan, a traditional, patriarchal and feudal society where “bacchabazi” is considered macho.