LAHORE: The Zainab rape and murder case of Kasur is to Pakistan what the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case was to India.
A symbol of abuse against women, a revelation of sorts for the society and a test case that demanded affirmative action and changes in legislation.
After the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, the Indian government responded, largely due to public outrage and protests, with several new sexual assault laws and punishments which included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape. Six new fast-track courts solely for rape prosecutions and a Nirbhaya Fund was created to exclusively address issues relating to violence against women.
The gruesome rape and murder of eight-year-old Zainab Ameen, which shook the country to its core and drew condemnation from every corner also demands an extensive scrutiny of Pakistan’s legislation and amendments that ensure, as far as the executive narrative is concerned, that such an incident never happens again.
One part of the change that is imperative is amendments in legislation. The second part: awareness against child sexual abuse and with child abuse statistics in Pakistan pointing towards a worsening situation, the steps need to be taken quickly. Zainab was among the dozen children to be murdered in Kasur district in Punjab province in the past year. In 2015, police identified a gang of child sex abusers in the same district.
Minister of State for Information, Broadcasting, National History and Literary Heritage Marriyum Aurangzeb, spoke about the importance of including child abuse awareness in the curriculum at educational institutions.
Speaking in the National Assembly, she stated that subjects concerning such social issues, like child abuse, shall have to be made part of the school curriculum.
The minister said that apart from a change in the education system, the legal system should also be reviewed.
For any notion to get a systemised backing of the state, the narrative needs to begin at the microscopic level. For awareness targetting children, educational institutions are the obvious choice.
But what education do the children get? As polarised as Pakistan already is, educating children regarding sexual nature of possible crimes is a religio-political conundrum in itself.
Senator Hafiz Hamdullah of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) on one hand condemned the continued trend of violence and abuse against the children in Pakistan and deemed such actions against the very spirit of Islam, but on the other hand categorically denied his support to the issue of imparting sex education to children in schools.
“We need to make our children aware of the dangers that they can face, this awareness needs to be given in schools, colleges even madrassas”, the senator said while talking to Pakistan Today. “But if you want our support for the western version of sex education to be allowed in schools, we oppose the notion as it will aggravate the situation even more,” Hafiz Hamdullah said, adding, “we will even resist its implementation if any such step is taken”.
The senator’s opinion is not an isolated one. Numerous politicians, educators, even parents echo the belief that sex education is a westernised notion that will do more harm than good and will somehow lead the younger generation to be promiscuous.
Case in point is the drama serial Udaari which revolved around the issue of child sexual abuse that too by a very close family member. Where on hand Udaari was hailed as an important step towards breaking the taboo of discussing sexual assault, many parts of society found the content extremely explicit and “immoral” and prompted the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to issue a notice to the producers of the serial denouncing the “act” of an adult man sexually assaulting a minor girl.
So what basically is sex education? And is sex education the need of the hour?
According to leading Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist Dr Sheheryar Jovindah, sex education is imparting the knowledge about the very act of sex and issues related to it such as reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and protection against unwanted pregnancies.
“In my opinion, until the child has reached puberty such an education is not extremely necessary, but as in the case of Zainab in Kasur, children well under the age of puberty are being targetted by abusers and to brush the awareness regarding possible abuse under carpet, just because of its sexual nature, would be a criminal negligence,” Dr Jovindah stated.
Sex education and education about sexual abuse can be differentiated into two distinct fields if all the stakeholders in Pakistan are to be taken on board.
“Awareness regarding sexual abuse needs to be given to children as early as possible by registered practitioners who do not leave the child more confused than informed. The most important part of the awareness is removing the stigma and shame associated with the crime because of its sexual nature. Parents, teachers tend to discredit a child’s claim by pre-empting any discussion that contains the word “sex” as being dirty and it is the education about sexual abuse that will change the mindset,” Dr Jovindah stated at length.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) President Minorities Wing Punjab and Member Provincial Assembly (MPA) Shunila Ruth echoed the need for legislative action and making child abuse awareness part of a student’s learning.
While speaking about the awareness of such crimes, Ruth stated that the narrative that a child was “too young” was false.
“Children as young as 5 understand the autonomy they hold over their bodies, therefore to label any awareness campaigns that seek to teach children about their consent and crimes that are of sexual nature, as immoral is a blatant lie,” she said.
Umm-e-Aiman, a young mother who spoke to Pakistan Today during a “Justice for Zainab” protest, accepted the communication lag between parents and children that led to lesser reporting of child sexual abuse crimes.
“Parents need to listen to their children. Sex education, differentiating between love and inappropriate touching are issues that parents need to talk to their children about,” she said.
According to Saahil, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) that works on child protection with a special focus on sexual abuse, of the total reported cases of sexual abuse in the first six months of 2017, 45 percent of the cases were committed by acquaintances and strangers were found responsible for 15 percent of the child abuse cases.
15 percent of the crimes were committed at the victim’s own place, while 12 percent took place at an acquaintance’s abode.
The report further paints a bleak picture of child security in Pakistan by revealing that a 100 percent increase in child abuse by landlords was observed in 2017.
Seeing as how the Punjab government this past week has decided to introduce child protection curriculum in every educational institute of the province and formed a committee for protection of children against abuse, the need for such an action to be followed all over Pakistan becomes even more important.
Punjab Government Spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan reiterated the provincial government’s resolve to include child abuse awareness in school syllabus, adding that all stakeholders will be taken on board to ensure unanimous approval for this step.
The committee formed in Punjab proposed measures such as maintaining a DNA database, replication of AMBER alert system and developing a standard operating procedure to immediately locate and recover missing children.
Other measures proposed in the committee call for intelligent monitoring of spaces frequented by children and changing the school curriculum to introduce abuse awareness.
True, Kasur is a district of Punjab but according to Saahil, a total of 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported from across the country in the first six months of 2017 alone.
According to data from Saahil, out of the total cases of child abuse from January to June 2017, 62 percent were reported from Punjab, 27 percent from Sindh, 76 percent from Balochistan, 58 percent from FATA, 42 percent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and nine percent from Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
In the previous year, the total number of reported child abuse cases stood at a staggering 4,139, bringing the total number of children being abused in Pakistan per day to 11.
Therefore in the light of these statistics, there are measures that need to be taken at a national level.
Registering sex offenders, the creation of a national authority which facilitates inter-provincial coordination for locating missing children and exchange of information about suspected paedophiles and sex offenders are steps that need to be taken because as PTI’s Shunila Ruth stated, “Protection of our children is a national responsibility that transcends politics and any ulterior motive.”