The issue of child sexual abuse has been discussed nationwide across media and government spaces, especially after the Zainab case, when the six-year-old was raped and killed by a man in Kasur in 2018. The incident saw massive backlash and protests, and even the government had introduced a law to counter rapes and sexual assaults against children in Pakistan. However, a recent report shows that such incidents have not stopped, and have actually increased over the year. According to a report titled ‘Cruel Numbers’ by NGO Sahil, eight cases of child sexual abuse are reported in Pakistan on a daily basis. As per the report, 2,960 cases have been reported in 2020, as the cases have seen a 4 percent increase compared to 2019.
The data further reveals that: “in the reported cases of sexual abuse, 51% were girls, while 49% were boys.” It further said: “The research shows that children are most vulnerable to abuse in the age group 6-15 years. Moreover, children as young as 0-5 years are also sexually abused.” It further noted that out of total cases, 985 were of sodomy, 787 were rapes, 89 were pornography and Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), and 80 were murder after CSA.
Experts maintain that these harrowing numbers are just a glimpse of the rotten side of society because these cases are largely under-reported. Observers note that in Pakistani society, a twisted concept of ‘honour’ persists which means that people don’t report such incidents to the police, especially when a close relative is involved. To save the ‘family name’, these families hide these incidents, and never talked about them.
“People tell me not to talk to respect my family’s honour. Is my family’s honour packed in my body?” remarked actor Nadia Jamil.
As per the above-cited report, “The reason behind this is that the perpetrators have easy access to the victim; the child trusts the perpetrator, and maybe in a loving relationship with the person.”
As mentioned earlier, the Zainab rape case shook the country, and in light of it, the government introduced a new law. The ‘Zainab Alert Bill’ was passed in National Assembly in March 2020. Announcing the development, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari said: “Finally Zainab Alert Bill was passed [after] a long struggle which Asad Umar began in last NA. Has had many hiccups along the way but thank God the Bill [became] law.” Under the new law, the punishment for the child abuser will be the death penalty under Section 364-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).
Furthermore, the government formed a separate body Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA). The body will issue an alert in case of a child missing and coordinate with the provincial and federal government, law enforcement agencies and establish a database of all children missing or abducted with current situation. The police will have to register an FIR within two hours of the child missing report. Police officer failing to comply with it can face jail time up to two years and fine of Rs 100,000. As per the bill, a special court will be established to fast-track these cases.
Experts say the law is a major step because it is the first such law made in Pakistan. However, they insist that there are other steps that need to be taken to counter the issue. It includes educating the children of bad touch, spreading awareness about the crime in society, encouraging the people to report such incidents and eradicating the prevalent notion of ‘honour’.
Activists urge spreading awareness about these heinous crimes, which needed to be reported and the culprit arrested. They say a mix of law enforcement and social understanding is the only way to tackle the menace. And while the legislation passed in light of Zainab’s death is a progressive step, observers say that without widespread understanding and the creation of trust in police and state authorities, the abuse will not stop.
“The public debate and new legislation that came out of Zainab’s death was a positive outcome of a terrible tragedy. But the work, clearly, is just beginning,” noted writer Samira Shackle.