Pakistan must protect its children against any kind of abuse
Waqar Mustafa
The shame isn’t ours, said several Pakistani celebrities sharing their childhood sexual abuse experiences. This was about two years ago. The rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab Ansari had outraged the country and its citizens cried for a safe environment for children. By sharing their stories, the celebs hoped to highlight the ubiquitous child sexual abuse and sought to end the culture of silencing and shaming the survivors in the society.
Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world. More than one-third of its people are children who are vulnerable to several challenges such as lack of access to education and health, sexual exploitation, trafficking, marriage, and labour. A report by child protection advocacy group Sahil notes there were 2,846 cases of child abuse across the country in 2019. In other words, about eight children were subjected to abuse each day of 2019, with more than half being girls (54 per cent). Of the total, 778 were abductions, 405 children went missing, 384 were cases of sodomy, 279 of rape, 210 of attempted rape, 205 of gang sodomy cases and 115 of gang rape, the data showed. In addition, 104 child marriage cases were also reported from across the country. The most vulnerable age group was between six and 15. Although children as young as 0-5 years were also sexually abused, stated the report. There were at least 70 cases identified related to pornography. The most common perpetrator of the child sex abuse was an acquaintance with the victim and the victim’s family.
Based on newspaper reports on the sexual abuse of children (including rape and attempted rape), child marriage, and abducted and missing children, the figure was even higher at a whopping 3,832 in 2018 – the year Zainab Ansari’s body was found in a garbage dumpster in Kasur district near Lahore.
A new law against child abuse was introduced soon after, aptly named after her. Pakistan’s first national child abuse law introduces a penalty of life imprisonment for child abuse. The law requires police to register a case within two hours of a child’s parents file the report. It includes measures to speed up the process, including the establishment of a dedicated helpline and a new agency to issue alerts for a missing child.
Violence against children and adolescents – rape, any other form of torture, any form of physical, mental or emotional violence, and murder – is a great threat to the health of the next generation. The government says it is making all efforts to ensure that no child is abused across the country. An integrated approach is needed to prevent child abuse.
Besides physical harm, psychological disorders caused by child sexual abuse are panic disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress disorder. Child sexual abuse affects not only the individual but also the families.
The country’s leading psychiatrists, under the banner of Pakistan Association for Mental Health (PAMH), propose a wide-ranging media campaign to sensitise the community to children’s vulnerabilities and risk factors, and identify the various forms of their physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect. They suggest enabling children and adolescents to protect themselves through the teaching of ‘health and hygiene’ at the primary and secondary levels.
“In addition to legislative and societal reforms, it is extremely important to help children to become more aware of their right to safety and to educate them in strategies to protect themselves. At the same time, it is equally important to sensitise parents and teachers and help them in not only communicating with children in ways that encourage trust and openness but also in being able to respond appropriately if a child were to share an experience of being abused.”
The group recommends the introduction of a life-skills curriculum in the educational system focusing on health, hygiene, and emotional development.
Protecting a child means protecting a country’s future. The 2019 report shows a 25 per cent decrease in the number of cases of child abuse in the country from the previous year. The number needs to go down to zero. Until that happens, the child abuse shame is collective. No nation can afford to abandon its young ones, its own future.