LAHORE -- As the first anniversary of the tragic death of Zainab Fatima Ameen, a 7-year-old girl who was raped and killed in Kasur, Punjab Province, approaches, Pakistanis are calling on the government to tackle the menace of child abuse.
Several child rape cases have shocked Pakistan over the past year, prompting social media users to use the hashtag #PakistanisAgainstChildAbuse to raise awareness about the problem.
In addition to the rape and murder of Zainab, a 4-year-old girl was raped and killed in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), in January 2018, while a 6-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped by two men in Sukkur, Sindh Province, in August 2018.
Last year alone, at least 875 cases of sexual assault against minors were recorded in Punjab, according to a local police report.
"Only a tiny proportion of such crimes are ever reported to the police, mainly because of fears that child survivors will not be treated sympathetically," a senior official of the Punjab Police said on condition of anonymity.
"Sex education must be mandatory in schools at the elementary level, starting from parental advice at home," he told Pakistan Forward. "Society is hesitant to introduce sex education in school."
The survivors mostly hide such acts to avoid public shame, which in turn leaves the perpetrators with impunity, he said.
"The processes of the criminal justice system are complicated and exhaustive; a victim remains scared and assailants gain encouragement," he said.
"Shame is only for perpetrators, not for their victims or the survivors," he added. "There is a need to teach children that there is no shame in talking about an uncomfortable grope, or worse, abuse."
Sexual abuse is a violent crime, and lessons about non-violence start at home, said Dr. Nasir Saeed Khan, senior psychiatrist at Services Hospital in Lahore.
"Lessons on how to distinguish between good and bad touching, how not to interact with strangers and how to confer with parents if one is improperly touched by an acquaintance or a stranger, as well as counselling, are all needed," he told Pakistan Forward.
As many as 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported daily across Pakistan, according to data collected by Sahil, an Islamabad-based non-governmental organisation that works on child protection issues with a special focus on sexual abuse.
Sahil is working to develop a protective environment for children free from all forms of violence and exploitation.
Between January and June 2018, a total of 2,322 child abuse cases were reported in newspapers across Pakistan.
That period saw 542 cases of abduction, 381 cases of sodomy, 236 cases of missing children, 224 cases of attempted rape, 167 cases of gang sodomy, 92 incidents of gang rape and 53 cases of child marriages, according to Sahil.
During the same period, police registered 57 murders after sexual abuse.
The data revealed that 65% of the cases were reported in Punjab, 25% in Sindh, 3% in Islamabad, 3% in KP and 2% in Balochistan, while 21 cases were reported in Pakistani-controlled Jammu and Kashmir and 2 cases in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Legislation against child abuse
While Pakistan has child protection laws, more needs to be done to raise awareness among families and in society so that victims seek justice, observers say.
To address these issues, Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari last Friday (January 11) met with a delegation from the Islamabad-based Child Rights Movement.
Every school will teach human rights and a massive campaign will begin at the local level to create awareness of child protection, she said.
Officials soon will implement a mechanism to protect children in consultation with the Ministry of Interior and respective provincial governments, she said.
"The real issue is to change the mindset of people. It is an uphill task," Mazari said, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan.
Police do not respond appropriately to cases of child abuse, said Habiba Salman, a member of the Child Rights Movement.
Pakistan needs to build up the police's capacity to investigate crimes involving children, she said, according to local news reports, adding that police need to take proactive measures to crack down on child abusers.
In Pakistan, "culprits, rapists, [and] abusers of children and women flee away from charges due to weakness in prosecution and improper investigations", freelance journalist Saman Siddiqui wrote in a blog published by SAMAA last February 6.
"The recent rampage of child molestation cases clearly shows the dark side of our frustrated and illiterate society," she said. "There is a need is to make stronger and effective legislation for such crimes."