Cases of child abuse are not a rarity in Pakistan
They were abused, they were filmed, they were blackmailed — they were scarred for life.
The nation stood motionless when news first broke about close to 300 children becoming victims of sexual abuse in Hussain Khan Wala Village, Kasur. As the shock at the magnitude of what had transpired began to wear off conflicting reports began to emerge in the media. While some from the authorities claimed that the numbers reported had been artificially inflated, some others said the issue had nothing to do with child abuse, and everything to do with a land dispute.
Dr Farzana Bari, a seasoned human rights activist and the Director of the Gender Studies Centre, wasted no time before heading over to Kasur to figure out fact from fiction. She spoke exclusively to DNA about her experience.
“When I went there I assessed the situation personally, and my impression is that whatever happened was part of a very organised crime. Our society had a child abuse problem, but this wasn’t just that — this wasn’t just an individual case of one person going after a few children,” she observed.
A gang of 20-25 men orchestrated the abuse during the period of 2006-14; estimates suggest that between 280-300 children were ripped of their childhoods and forced into personal sexual acts. Over 400 child pornography videos were borne of the abuse, and were sold for as little as Rs50. The material was use to extort and blackmail not just the children but their parents, too. The damage to their young minds is going to, without a shred of doubt, last a lifetime.
“I don’t think any of us can say whether they were 240 or 300, but rest assured they were definitely two or three children involved in this, as some people have tried to let on. And it has been ongoing for a long, long time,” she said.
Soon after nationwide outrage began to pour in it was highlighted that Kasur’s Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) Malik Ahmed Saeed, and the police, were a part of the cover-up. On August 8, Punjab Minister of Law Rana Sanaullah said that no child abuse had happened at all — instead there was a land dispute problem that had resulted in fake cases being registered. Only a day later, on August 9, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif instructed that a judicial inquiry into the matter be setup immediately.
Bari points out the disappointing and contradictory nature of the government response to the entire fiasco.
“The government’s side became extremely defensive about the issue extremely fast. First they said there was a land dispute then they wanted a committee. It doesn’t help that the issue has become politicised,” the activist lamented.
“People are now saying things like the Punjab police is this and that… as though the issue exists nowhere else in Pakistan. I’m not sure if anything will come out of this,” she added.
When the police itself is complicit in a case the likelihood is that it will be covered up. “They always try to hide such cases. This is the culture here basically i.e., when police excesses are highlighted, their reaction is to always cover things up. Whether they are directly involved or not is irrelevant – they will protect their own people,” Bari said.
‘The government’s side became extremely defensive about the issue extremely fast. First they said there was a land dispute then they wanted a committee. It doesn’t help that the issue has become politicised’
“A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has been constituted to look into what happened. However, from the very start we have had reservations over it because it has no independent voices; there are no members of the civil society, no members from any opposition party, no judge, no activist… all these people from the police or intelligence agencies… what will they do?” she questioned while talking about the efforts that the government is trying to make.
Already, the families that have been affected are feeling the pressure with many becoming more and more hesitant about coming forward. Many of the families are afraid of the power that the criminals have to their disposal. Unfortunately, the authorities are not really helping.
“Already people are being harassed by the police, I’ve got several of these calls. People are already scared and they fear the repercussions of pursuing this. More than 40 people submitted their application but only 12-14 of those were prepared to push for an FIR,” Bari lamented.
Cases of child abuse are not a rarity in Pakistan. The issue is such a taboo that few people openly talk about abuse, and the ones that come forward as being victims are often blamed for what transpired.
“These cases happen all the time. There is little to no documentation about many of them. Our NGOs will try to gather facts and figures off and on, and based on just that data we now know that of the 10 districts in Punjab where child abuse is most prevalence, Kasur is on the eight position. So this filth was already there,” Bari said.
She points out that what makes it worse is the extent to which the abuse, and criminal acts surrounding it, were organised. The children and their parents were being blackmail in a manner which has no parallel in Pakistan’s history.
“The only case before this was that of a man who had killed over a 100 children. He would kidnap children and rape them before murdering them and throwing them into acid. For the longest time people didn’t know about him,” Bari recalled.
In the late 1990s, Javed Iqbal Mughal, the man behind the heinous crime, was caught. However, he wasn’t killed or punished by the authorities — he simply took his own life.
“All over the world there are cases of abuse but you won’t find anything comparable that was this organised and well executed. This was a gang,” Bari said with disgust.
The future for the children who were at the centre of this storm remains a large question mark. The fact that the issue was only highlighted after the victims’ parents clashed with the police speaks volumes. Bari questioned the state’s response and attitude towards the issue.
“What was the need to mention the land dispute? When I went there I realised that there indeed was a land dispute there, but what on earth did it have to do with the child abuse and pornography?” she asked.
In any other country the likely response to what happened in Kasur would have been that the state would have stepped up efforts to protect the children, and ensure their rehabilitation. Government voices have simultaneously called for action and played down the incident. In such a situation, what’s to be expected?
“I have little hope from the JIT to be honest. It will only highlight absurd things that make no difference,” Bari asserted.
“There needs to be an honest investigation into this and the perpetrators need to be brought to justice. Society will have more confidence in institutions if this is dealt with properly. And the people that were affected will feel safer as well and then efforts can be made to rehabilitate them. You can only do that when you accept that this happened… But if you keep covering t up who will you help and how?” she questioned.
The road to recovery is a tough one for any abuse victim, it’s even tougher for children. Many of the victims were under the age of 14. How will children that were barely teenagers learn to move forward in their lives?
‘There needs to be an honest investigation into this and the perpetrators need to be brought to justice. Society will have more confidence in institutions if this is dealt with properly’
“Things like this affect a person for the entirety of their lives unless they receive long term psychological counselling there is no way for a child to manage their lives in a healthy manner. Otherwise this will have long lasting, and multiple, psychological effects on them,” Bari informed.
The social activist pointed out that violence such as this, or child abuse, comes from people who have either experienced child abuse around them or have been victims. Without adequate help and persistent efforts for rehabilitation there is no telling what will happen to the victims in the Kasur case.
The situation can one of utter failure, starting with failure of the very basic systems.
“The law has child protection policies but no implementation plans. Child rights are talked about but there is no emphasis on child protection,” Bari explains.
The lack of legislation for protection is coupled with a lack of education. Child abuse is not taboo by its own virtue, it starts at the very basic i.e., sex itself is taboo.
“Sex education needs to be introduced to people here. Whenever we talk about this people always react negatively to sex education, but what is it? You tell a child what is inappropriate and what isn’t… the difference between a good touch and a bad touch,” Bari said while adding that children needed to also be told that it would never be their fault if someone behaved in an inappropriate manner with them.
Parents also need to develop better relationships with their children. “Parents need to bridge the generation gap. They need to build such a relationship that their children are able to talk to them. They shouldn’t be afraid of bringing their problems to them,” she said.
In terms of the state, apart from better legislation, a time frame needs to be developed for such convictions. “If there is a high rate of prosecution and conviction then it would be a deterrent as well. If the culprits are punished then that will send a clear message,” Bari asserted.
An interesting aspect of the entire Kasur incident is the use of the term ‘scandal’ and how it has become a personal hell for the people that were victimised by it. Parents and children alike are ashamed of what happened to them, but Bari feels that needs to change.
“You need to go and adopt this village and then execute long term planning there and involve people in healthy activities. Engage the youth so that they get out of this rut. That entire village is now ‘badnam’ and they need to be told that they have nothing to be ashamed about,” Bari said.
“The people who are the culprits are the ones that need to be ashamed, not the other way around. Not the children and not the parents — and that is what we need to learn as a society too,” she added.
The Kasur case is a study in what happens when information breaks free. Whether it was a land dispute that resulted in the abuse getting highlighted or something else, it’s all irrelevant — what’s relevant is how similar problems can be found and rooted out, and how we can ensure that something like this never happens again.