Say No to Sexual Abuse

As the news cycle inevitably shifts to politics, violent extremism, the national debt, we all know that little Zainab’s story will fade away into a niche issue until the next such horror erupts. That is the nature of human memory, especially in the age of quantum processing and 24/7 television.

Our task as citizens, legislators, public representatives is not small. If we use our individual and collective agency to effect change, our first, minimal responsibility to our people, our children will be on its way to opening the gateway to change.

The one most widespread response that sexual abuse of any kind elicits, the world over, is the resort to silence. The videos that exposed a hall of horrors in the annals of sexual abuse in 2015 from Kasur took a long time in pushing their way to public light. Many lives were permanently ruined in the blackmail and maiming that underpinned those serial crimes. The community’s anger was matched by a sad, unfair seam of shame and socially induced guilt that invariably scars victims and their families. Such social attitudes helped in burying the case. Islands of complicity and the disastrous role of privatised justice played a huge part in either buying off or scaring away the affected families from pursuing prosecution. A key lesson learnt was that the power of socially-induced shame must never be underestimated in pushing the scale, nature and perpetrators of this evil under the rug.

But even with the muzzling of voices, the data on the subject is harrowing. Global accounts suggest that one in five women and one in 13 men already report being sexually abused as a child. In Pakistan, according to SAHIL, the NGO that works on child abuse, in only the reported cases, every day, more than 11 children fall prey to sexual abuse. Forty-three per cent of the survivors said they knew their assaulters, while 16 per cent testified to family abusers.

Clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

First thing first. Of course we must hold ourselves accountable for ensuring that each province and the Islamabad federal area have optimal laws in place. Without the laws little will get done on the ground. At the federal level, the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, which provides for free legal advice for victims, just does not make the policy implementation cut. Out of all four provinces, Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have done better in having the most robust child protection laws in place. Punjab, which is home to 62 per cent of the child abuse cases, has no such omnibus law on the table. The existing Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act of 2004 is too weak and of low scope to cope with the complex set of protections needed for a material impact on such crimes. Kasur itself continues to report 11 such more grisly crimes just in one year before Zainab’s brutally ravaged body was dumped on a trash heap.

But even once the laws are in place, as we know, a law is as good as its citizens and the justice system allows it to be.

Let’s be clear: Every law will require a social coalition against sexual abuse, and it will need time. The real change that will shift the game on the ground will not happen overnight, or even in 10 years or 20. It will take a lifetime of pushing, but there can be no doubt that each push will be worth the effort. Not only time, and of course dogged commitment will be needed, but a resilience against reversals. Rights campaigners will all know that after the media starts reporting, and victims gather courage to speak out, we can even expect perhaps a visible spike in crimes based on higher reporting. The disappointment against more cases coming to public light must therefore only be handled with more action and support, not a debunking of laws or a resort to inaction fuelled by the very natural response of despair.

A few non-governmental organisations are doing important work. Let us encourage them instead of penalising them, and help with building global linkages. Sexual abuse is the one nasty worm that infects every class, every community in Pakistan, but the light in this tunnel is that sexual abuse both against children and women and men is embedded in regional and growing global trends of activism against such crimes. Let us identify all such potential partners as actors for a better future for our young people. Let us resolve to do more in just making public discourse a safer space for victims and their families so they can report, see justice and rebuild their lives.

The article appeared in The Express Tribune on 14-1-2018.