A manufactured sickness by Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir

The writer is founding partner of Mazari-Hazir Advocates & Legal Consultants.

In 2018, Sahil released a report titled ‘Cruel Numbers 2018’, which put forward some horrifying statistics on child abuse across the country.

In 2018, some 3,832 cases of child abuse had been reported, with a 33 percent rise in reported child sexual abuses cases (in comparison to the previous year). Girls up to the age of five and those between sixteen and eighteen years of age were identified as being more vulnerable, whereas boys between the ages of six and fifteen were found to be more vulnerable.

Much has already been written on the need for awareness and legislation so it will not be useful to delve into that here. What is, however, critical in determining our ability to handle this societal sickness is recognizing and addressing the patterns of thinking that have culminated in the abuse of children becoming a permanent way of life in Pakistan.

Pakistani society, even in the 21st century, endorses a strange segregation based on gender. Girls and women are seen in roughly the following way: inferior to men and therefore, deservedly being confined to the four walls of their homes.

As a result, from day one, male-female interaction is not only unnaturally limited but actively penalized by society and state agencies. Let us take a very small example of moral policing and enforced segregation: if a man and a woman are seen in a public space together (a park or even in their private car), they are stopped and harassed by the police.

Growing up in Islamabad, we heard of numerous incidents where mixed groups in public parks were stopped, harassed and blackmailed by law enforcement officials. Similar stories are still heard in various cities today. But these are quite literally just the tip of the iceberg.

Then, let us move to the bigger examples: when women are assaulted, harassed, raped or murdered, society first deliberates over why these women stepped out of their homes, what they were wearing and the many ways in which they had asked for what happened to them. Confinement of women to their homes is the first problem and the second is the establishment of a perverted social order where children are seen as sexual objects.

What society is failing to recognize is how this perception of women as inferior has not only endangered young girls and women but also young boys. Sahil had highlighted this in its 2018 report, where it emphasized how minor boys sent to shops, etc are in “a more vulnerable situation” as a result of prohibitions on the socialization of girls. As a result of society’s attempt to control women, predators operate with complete freedom and as a matter of routine.

All of this has been recorded through reports and documentaries, including ‘Pakistan’s Hidden Shame’, which aired on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2014. The documentary is a must-watch for anyone wishing to understand the attitudes and mindset that have resulted in such rampant paedophilia in our country. The documentary highlighted inter alia how local surveys in the city of Peshawar illustrated that 9 out of 10 street children have suffered some form of abuse; and how 95 percent of truck drivers in the locality admitted to engaging in sexual acts with young boys. This is just one locality being reported on.

One conductor on a truck being interviewed stated casually as follows: “There was a kid on this bus. And everyone had sex with him.” I cannot complete his sentence because it is not appropriate for publication in a newspaper. Later, he is asked what he thinks about a woman’s role in society, to which he responds: “a woman is a thing you keep at home. I’m going to find a good, respectable wife ...who prays”.

The interviewer then of course asks if religion is important to the conductor, to which the conductor responds: “It is very important for me...”

We have manufactured a sickness in our society, where full-grown men believe the innocence of children is something to be exploited for their sexual gratification. There is a clear power imbalance involved and like in most cases of sexual violence, power is key in this context also. As Reynaert observed, in his 2015 paper on ‘Sexual abuse of children as a form of power abuse and abuse of the body’: “the power difference makes the abuse possible”.

Like the young boys sexually abused by truck drivers, the same horrific abuse is being perpetrated in other localities. As rightly highlighted by Reynaert, “power is the most important factor in a discussion of sexual abuse; a critical analysis of power is thus necessary”.

As we are well-aware that “the adult is always more powerful than the child” (Reynaert), it becomes imperative for us, as a society, to openly discuss the concept of free and informed consent between sexual partners, a topic that is never discussed. The innocence of children is exploited and many of the men engaged in this depraved behaviour often give the justification that the children (like Pakistani women) were asking for it.

The state has banned pornography and so what has emerged is even more readily available black-market child pornography. Wherever there is forced repression and religiosity being shoved down peoples’ throats, the result will be distortion or perversion. The battle against this sickness will not be won through legislation or awareness raising alone – it can only be won if we end the forced repression, power imbalances, segregation and warped morality that pervades our society.

We demanded justice for Zainab. Her rapist and murderer, Imran Ali, was executed only nine months after her death but the instances of child sexual abuse are nowhere close to halting. Earlier this year, in February, the minister of state for parliamentary affairs moved a resolution in the National Assembly calling for the public hanging of those who sexually abuse and murder children. The fact that every time an incident of child sexual abuse takes place our society’s immediate response is to call for harsher penalties illustrates our inability to grasp the problem in the first place.

The solution to Pakistan’s problem with child sexual abuse is not more stringent penalties but reform with respect to the sickness we have intentionally and consistently manufactured over the decades.

Pakistan shockingly considers itself a bastion of moral values, when it has a depraved society where sickness is swept under the rug to the detriment of our most vulnerable simply because we do not have the integrity or courage to recognize and alter our warped morality or rectify power imbalances.

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