Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
One week after the body of 7-year old Zainab Amin was found on a garbage heap near her home, protests continued in many parts of Pakistan. On television talk shows, politicians and analysts demanded the resignation of top officials; demonstrating students in universities mourned the dead child; and the hashtag #JusticeforZainab was all over social media sites.
The results of the autopsy conducted on Zainab’s body revealed that she had been raped and sodomized, likely strangled. Her tongue had been crushed between her teeth. She was the 12th girl reported attacked within a two-kilometer radius, according to officials. Eleven girls have been killed, and one girl survived.
And yet, for all gruesome details of Zainab’s killing and all the outrage currently coursing through Pakistan, it is unlikely that children like Zainab will gain any meaningful protection from childhood sexual abuse.
One significant reason for this is there is no such thing as sex education in Pakistan, let alone childhood sexual abuse prevention education. A 2009 UNESCO sex education guide explained that without proper knowledge, particularly a curriculum at school, young people were “potentially vulnerable to coercion, abuse and exploitation.”
Even in Pakistan’s urban private schools, children never learn how to protect themselves from pedophiles and unwanted touching, and teachers never learn how to detect warning signs that a child is being victimized. The taboo against public discussions of sex is extended to sex education and child sexual abuse prevention. Teaching a child about what sorts of behavior an adult or older child must never ever inflict on them is believed to be the same as teaching an innocent child about having sex. The concept that sex education can be done in an age-appropriate way to protect the child from abuse is anathema.
This social and cultural ignorance compounds the shame that victims feel and reduces the number of reported cases. While NGOs like Sahil, an organization that works to protect children from sexual abuse and promote the rights of children in Pakistan, produce annual reports that compile cases during a given year, they largely rely on cases reported to the media because there are no national statistics maintained by the government. What is not counted simply does not exist and does not require resource allocation.
While urban areas do have psychiatric and psychological services that may be obtained by wealthy survivors, 76% of all reported cases were from rural areas where there are no rehabilitative facilities at all. Zainab was killed after she was abused but those who do live and are living likely receive no treatment at all.
While attention is being given to this particular case, there is no recognition either in society at large or within government institutions of the need to provide sexual abuse prevention education to children, teachers and health care professionals.
Reporting and rehabilitation avenues for childhood sexual abuse survivors (and there were more than 4,000 new cases, including gang rape and sodomy of children, in just 2016) are nearly nonexistent in Pakistan, ensuring the continuation of the cycle of abuse.
And even though childhood sexual abuse is a crime in Pakistan, the absence of tools to investigate and successfully prosecute these crimes means that even when reports are made, perpetrators are not always punished. A culture of impunity, one that encourages further pedophilia and persecution of children, is hence created.
Zainab Amin lived in Kasur, a part of Punjab province that is not a stranger to high profile pedophilia cases. The district, which saw 141 cases of child sexual abuse in 2016, was, until 2015, home to a pedophilia ring that abused more than 200 children and sold videos of the abuse. Like Zainab’s case, it caused outrage among Pakistanis and then quickly faded from memory.
In addition to the absence of sexual education, the lack of resources to properly build a sexual assault case against a perpetrator also presents a roadblock.
Child sexual abuse is a crime according to the Pakistan Penal Code – which was amended in 2016, following the last pedophilia scandal, to include child pornography and sexual assault (other than rape), and made punishable by seven years in prison. However, the investigation and prosecution of these cases requires the deployment of forensic methods like DNA analysis, often crucially necessary given the age of the victims and the fact that there are few or no witnesses to the crime. Since these are currently unavailable, particularly in rural areas, even those perpetrators that are charged with crimes are rarely convicted.
Pakistan is a shame culture, where what is not seen or talked about openly does not have moral reality or import. Pedophiles benefit from this aversion to uncomfortable discussions, taking cover in the silence and ignorance and impunity of the private realm.
Zainab Amin’s ghastly and tragic end will likely get a few more days of attention in Pakistan, but unless the taboo against informing and educating children is destroyed, rehabilitative services made a priority and investigative resources allotted to the thousands of cases, many more children like Zainab will remain imperiled.