Some crimes are so horrific, so brutal, so barbaric in nature that it is impossible for these acts to not make any human being feel outraged and disgusted at the world we live in. Sexual violence against children is one such unforgiveable crime. Race, religion, geography, and politics have no bearing on recognising the evil that is sexual abuse of children.
This is why the people of Pakistan, a conservative country where polarisation along religio-political lines is deep-seated, came together in a rare moment of unity and took to the streets earlier this month to protest police inaction when the rape and murder of Zainab Ansari, a seven-year-old child from the city of Kasur in eastern Punjab, made the news. Zainab was on her way to religious studies class on January 4 and never made it back home. Days later, her body was found in a heap of trash.
For those who aren't aware of the magnitude of the protests in Pakistan that spread like wildfire, think of it this way: Zainab is to Pakistan what Rajon's killing in 2015 was to Bangladesh, and what the 2012 Delhi gang rape case was to India. It is a moment of national awakening and introspection. For a country where sexual abuse of children is widespread—even more so because of the deafening silence on issues considered “taboo” along with law enforcement incompetence and negligence—it has taken far too long for this day to come.
It is not as if it is unusual for incidents of sexual violence against women or children to make the news in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. In fact, you see headlines such as “Teenage girl abducted, raped” almost every day. So why is it that public outrage does not always ensue as a result of these horrific headlines?
The answer lies in the fact that this “boiling point” is usually reached when the crime, in part or in full, is open to public view and/or is so brutal in nature that it is bound to shake a nation to its core. This delayed reaction in the form of nationwide protests or collective outcry on social media is both a sign of ignorance and awakening. Ignorance because why else would it take graphic images to jolt our conscience, to suddenly come to the realisation that it is time to confront our demons, when such incidents are commonplace and reported in the media almost daily? There's a certain kind of selfishness—and it's part of human nature I suppose—to feel only when you're made to see, whereas only hearing or reading about it in the news allows us to rest easy.
Zainab was not the first child in Kasur to meet such a cruel fate. In fact, this is the same city where the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan's history originated. During 2006-2014 a series of child sexual abuses, of at least 200 children, took place in Hussain Khanwala village in Kasur which later culminated into a major political scandal in 2015 that involved an organised crime ring that sold child pornography. According to Pakistani daily The Express Tribune, last year, a total of 129 cases of child abuse were reported from Kasur and the year before that, the number stood at 141.
Despite a well-documented history of child sexual abuse, the city of Kasur continues to be a safe haven for paedophiles thanks to inaction of local administration and law enforcement. What is so outrageous is the fact that Zainab would have been alive today had the police actually done its job back in 2015 because the DNA of Zainab's killer, who remains at large, matched the DNA found in six other similar cases from Kasur—the first of which took place in June 2015.
The man responsible for killing Zainab got away with rape six times. Let that sink in for a moment.
Like Pakistan, here at home, societal taboo, negligence of law enforcement and delayed justice continue to shield paedophiles from legal consequences. The harsh reality is that child sexual abuse permeates all levels of our society—from the realm of the private home to commercial child sexual exploitation. There are children as young as 10 in registered brothels, and tens of thousands have been forced into street prostitution. Those without any protection whatsoever—roaming the streets, parks, stations because they have nowhere else to go—are at risk of being targeted by traffickers.
While poverty and family breakdowns make children more vulnerable to falling prey to sexual abuse, it is the deafening silence in our society—including of those at the top of the political ladder—that makes it infinitely tougher to address and talk about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse of children in the country. This culture of silence also stems from the view of associating honour and dignity with chastity—particularly of the girl child—which serves to mask the criminal nature of child sexual abuse.
What recourse do we have though when the law itself risks legitimising sexual abuse of a child? The contradiction between ratifying UN Conventions that protect the rights of children and at the same time passing a national law that allows child marriage in “special cases” cannot be overstated.
Last year alone, 339 children were killed and 593 raped in Bangladesh, up by 28 percent and 33 percent respectively from 2016, according to a report by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum. The real figures are far higher because the report was based on news articles alone—and as we know, the media only cover a fraction of incidents of child rape and murder being committed behind closed doors. But even media coverage doesn't seem to be enough to provoke outrage. For instance, how many of us know about Tanha, the four-year-old girl, who was raped and strangled to death “because she screamed” and her body dumped in a toilet? This happened a little over five months ago.
It took the grisly sight of a child's dead body dumped in garbage for Pakistan to shake off the illusion that child sexual abuse isn't endemic—and to hopefully realise that a child somewhere will have to pay the price for society's silence because “moral” and religious reasoning does not permit them to. We perhaps would have taken to the streets too had a child in Bangladesh met the same fate as Zainab. But the fact is, we have reached a “breaking point” far too many times—Tonu, Rajon, Rupa—and what really changed? Will it take a “Zainab moment” for us too before we can start talking about child sexual abuse openly?
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.