Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pakistan: Child Sex Abuse Steps Out Of The Shadows In Pakistan

RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

Child Sex Abuse Steps Out Of The Shadows In Pakistan

By Ahmad Shah Azami

Out of the shadows and into the public eye; activists say the number of reported sex-abuse cases involving children rose by more than 20 percent in Pakistan last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean the problem is increasing.

Rather, the 3,861 cases of child sex abuse recorded in 2012 can be seen as a sign of greater public awareness and willingness to report such cases.

Sahil, a nongovernmental organization that fights child exploitation in Pakistan, has issued yearly reports on child sex abuse since the organization was founded in 1996.

Executive Director Maniza Bano tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the latest statistics are part of a growing trend. "We will just say that the reporting [of sex-abuse cases] has increased," she says. "This has been a voiceless or silent issue but now the people have the courage to report it."

With nearly 10 children subjected to sexual abuse in Pakistan every day, activists are calling on the government to do much more to deal with the issue. But awareness campaigns, media attention, and court actions are showing that the topic is no longer taboo.

In one highly publicized case, the reported rape of a 4-year-old boy in September prompted the highest court in Pakistan's Punjab Province to order a police investigation.

The court action came after the boy's father went public with allegations that his son was raped by the principal and janitor at a private school in Lahore. The father told local media that his son was found unconscious in a locked room after the alleged rape.

On November 8, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial ordered a lower court to see to it that police investigate the claims and submit a full report.

Changing Attitudes

Noting that courts have handed down sentences of life in prison or even death in child sex-abuse cases, Sahil's Bano sees some positive developments in how child sexual-abuse cases are tried. "The courts and judges are mostly aware [of such cases] and they strictly look into them. They try to allow very little chance of the acquittal of the culprit," she notes. "This is definitely a positive change and the cases are also decided sooner."

Such developments help show people that, if they seek help, they will be heard.

Samar Minallah, a prominent human rights activist and documentary filmmaker, explains how greater exposure of the issue has changed public attitudes. "The biggest reason is that, when we see discussions on TV and everywhere else, [child sex abuse] is considered a very great cruelty and a very bad act," she says.

"People have become more aware and now they know that it is not just a private issue -- it is a crime, and we can ask others for help."

According to Sahil's 2012 report, girls were listed as victims in 71 percent of the incidents of child sex abuse recorded in 2012, while 29 percent involved boys. Nearly 52 percent of the reported crimes took place in rural areas, compared to 48 percent in urban areas. The majority -- about 68 percent -- took place in the eastern Punjab Province, Pakistan's second-largest and most populous province.

Rights groups have called on the authorities to do more to crack down on sex crimes in general. Law enforcement agencies have been accused by rights group of failing to provide protection and support for victims' families.

And the Islamic Ideology Council, the state body that determines whether legislation is in compliance with Shari'a law, has come under criticism for maintaining a legal provision that victims must present four witnesses for a rape case to be heard in court.

Hanif Panizai, regional director of the Balochistan Province branch of Pakistan's Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), says legal obstacles are not high enough to deter potential sex offenders. "Women and children are a vulnerable group, and they can be easily targeted. It is their [law enforcement] duty to protect them," he says.

"We appeal to the government to establish a legal framework, as there is no comprehensive law at the moment that makes culprits accountable."