Sughra died when she was 11, but she will not rest in peace

Published: March 18, 2016
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While it was distressing enough to see this little girl standing amidst all the spectators in the court room to get justice, what was further harrowing was that the culprit was also present in the court and was standing right in front of the little girl. PHOTO: REUTERS

We live in a society where children are not taught much about the different forms of abuse. As adults, we are reluctant to discuss sex education, necessary for their safety.

Child sexual abuse is prevalent in our society, so there is no point in being in denial about it, and it has a very harmful impact, not just on the bodies but also the minds of the victims. Exploitation of such kind, taking place at a tender age, can have unimaginable life-long effects; leaving the victim emotionally scarred for life, including but not limited to shaking his/her confidence and annihilating the victim’s overall personality.

The Kasur incident, that took place last year, shook policy makers, law enforcers and other state functionaries to the core. But the expected course of action was zilch. The results were zero except for a few days of hue and cry on television. We didn’t see any big policy change dealing with the menace on an emergency basis. Nothing. I am quite sure many of us forget about it (or were in denial of it) a couple of days after the incident.

In September, 2015, I was in court for some work when another case of the similar nature was called. Sughra*, a little girl of hardly 11-years, appeared in the witness box. She was so small that her father had to lift her up to mark attendance. Interested in knowing what a child was doing in court, I waited to see what was to unfold.

She was a victim of child sexual abuse.

Now before I continue, please imagine yourself as a little girl, born and raised in a rural area of Pakistan, brought up on conservative values, exploited in such a fashion and then paraded through the hallways of a court.

While it was distressing enough to see this little girl standing amidst all the spectators in the court room to get justice, what was further harrowing was that the culprit was also present in the court and was standing right in front of the little girl.

In many countries, cases of such sensitivity – involving women and children – are proceeded in private; without the presence of an audience. And to avoid traumatising the child further, the accused is also prohibited from coming in front of the child.

In Sughra’s case, however, it seemed as though her lawyer had never appealed for an in camera proceeding.

Sughra’s piece

I followed the rest of the proceedings of this case and realised how shocking, sad and painful her story was. According to Sughra’s statement, she was six-years-old and had gone to purchase candy from a nearby shop when the accused – named H – offered her a toffee, abducted her and brought her to a secluded cattle haveli with the intention of sexually abusing her.

H dragged the little girl behind a cart and as he was attempting to abuse her, the girl screamed and that drew the attention of two female passers-by. H was spotted by the women who yelled for help. When the victim’s father reached the haveli, H had fled. Sughra’s father carried her to the nearest police station and lodged an FIR against the accused.

Father’s statement

The accused was tried under section 511 and 376 of the Pakistan Penal Code which define the offence of rape, and the attempt to commit rape, as a punishable offence.

What is disturbing, however, is that despite attending the court proceedings, paying a legal fee, and enduring the mental-toll of a trial for six years after the traumatic event took place, the case was never concluded. The child had to bear with all kinds of speculations, and had to undergo a police investigation, medico-legal examination and lengthy proceedings, until one day, in January 2016, during this fight for justice, she fell from her neighbour’s roof and died on the spot.

This girl was just 11-years-old. And she spent the larger part of her life trying to recover from a painful incident, and fighting for justice. Justice that was denied to her, even at the very end of her life. Although Sughra is now free of all the pain and trauma that came with sexual abuse, it bothers me to think she may not be resting in peace. Why, you ask? Because she faced a cruel fate – and she knew that there were many other children facing the same cruel fate – children who will probably be dealt the same hand of justice she was dealt, none at all. I visualise her sitting up in heaven, having a frantic, worried conversation with God, asking, begging Him to lift all children from the world if this was to be their fate.

Previously, in Pakistan, there was no separate law for children who had suffered through sexual abuse nor was it defined by the penal code. Countries neighbouring Pakistan, have, however, changed their laws to deal with crimes of child sexual abuse, keeping in mind the special needs of the minor. Police officers, psychologists, protection officers and judicial officers are specially trained to cater to cases involving children.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the victim is not brought to court, instead his/her statement is recorded by a counsellor. In India, a panel of four comprising a judge, a lawyer, a social activist and a psychologist is present to record the statement.

However, the good news is, our Senate has passed the, long promised, criminal amendments bill 2015. The bill specifies the age of the victim and comprehensively defines child pornography, cruelty to children and child abuse. According to the new bill, now the culprit of child sexual abuse can be imprisoned for life. But we still lack a comprehensive child protection system, separate courts, trained staff, and psychosocial counsellors to protect children from going through formal criminal procedures. I hope, our government will also think about establishing separate courts for all those children who are in conflict with law or in contact with law. And I hope that we, as citizens of Pakistan, realise our civic duties and take some responsibility in demanding a better justice system.

The name of the victim has been changed to protect her identity.

Syed Miqdad Mehdi

Syed Miqdad Mehdi

Child rights activist and law practitioner in Lahore, he tweets as @miqdadnaqvi (twitter.com/miqdadnaqvi)

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