The abduction, rape and murder of seven-year old Zainab from Road Kot in Kasur has sparked protests and riots in the city because there is a sordid history of child abuse in the district in which the police and administration is perceived to be either corrupt and complicit or incompetent and uncaring. Four years ago, reports surfaced of a gang of child-sodomizing blackmailers, prompting the police to arrest two dozen alleged offenders and calm down the public. But later almost all were set free by the courts either because the victims were too scared to give evidence or were bought off, or because of lack of coordination between the various investigation and prosecution branches of the administration.
According to NGO SAHIL, every day more than 11 children under the age of 18 fall prey to sexual abuse in the country. In 2016, nearly 4,150 cases of child abuse were reported. Over 43 percent of the survivors said they were acquainted with the criminals – and over 16 per cent said family members were perpetrators. Yet the record also shows criminal negligence or apathy on the part of the police, justice system, social mores and political culture in accounting for these monsters.
Kasur District has a particularly bad record of child abuse. At least a dozen children, half of them girls, have been abducted, raped and murdered in recent times. Now the police suspect the hand of a “serial killer” in at least eight such cases, since all occurred (2015 onwards) in the jurisdiction of three police stations. The police has arrested and interrogated scores of suspects and conducted dozens of forensic and DNA tests, but without much headway. Some reports say it has even resorted to a couple of “police encounters” to get rid of the worst offenders. But, as the latest outrage shows, the net result is tragically zero.
Not surprisingly, some people have tried to make political capital out of this tragedy. Maulana Tahir ul Qadri led funeral prayers for Zainab and linked the crime to the police killings in Model Town a few years ago for which he is demanding Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s head. The CM himself has tweeted his resolve (for the umpteenth time) to bring the criminals to justice. The agonizing Chiefs of the Army, Lahore High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan have all ordered inquiries and reports. No doubt, the police will soon show “results” by arresting and charging suspects but everyone will lose interest in what happens afterwards, until the next such incident occurs and the whole rigmarole of outrage, protest and forget is repeated.
To be sure, child abuse is not just Pakistan’s heartbreaking tragedy. COMPASSION lists it as a global societal issue that comes in many forms for children living in poverty – sexual, physical and emotional and includes neglect, exploitation and child labour. “Globally in 2014, 1 billion children aged 2–17 years experienced physical, sexual, emotional or multiple types of violence. A quarter of all adults report having been physically abused as children. One in five women and one in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child. Every year, there are an estimated 41,000 homicide deaths in children under 15 years of age.”
It is also true that child abuse is most pervasive in societies and cultures that condone such actions or neglect to uproot them by suitable laws and moral education practices. One young commentator on social media has put it succinctly in our own context:
“I want justice for Zainab and all the other children who have been assaulted, raped or killed in Kasur. I want to hold the authorities accountable for their criminal neglect. But I want to ask you and me and the rest of our society: when was the last time you encouraged a woman or a child to name and shame their harasser and assaulter? When was the last time you insisted on repealing the Hadood Ordinances under which a raped woman can be charged with adultery unless she produces four male witnesses? When was the last time you insisted that the school curricula in Pakistan include lessons in sexual practices and mores so that children don’t have to find out “the hard way’? When was the last time you tried to stop the countrywide practices of child labour and child marriage? The truth is that we are all complicit in all kinds of abuse, and we encourage silence in the reporting of that abuse, especially when it pertains to women’s bodies. Our legal system is broken (qisas and diyat, anyone?) and our national priority has never been to protect the vulnerable (women, children, religious and sexual minorities and differently abled and poor). In fact, we actively discourage any discussion about such things. So yes – protest all you want, take your candles to the next vigil. But don’t pretend that WE (you and me and our parents, our schoolteachers, our civilian and military rulers) don’t have anything to do with what is happening in our midst”.