Zainab was clearly not the last one as cases keep popping up, yet sex education remains taboo in Pakistan

Published: January 17, 2018
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Students at a madrassa in Karachi on March 4, 2015. PHOTO: AP

Recently, a school guard of a private school in Karachi was detained by the police for allegedly molesting a minor girl.

A five-year-old girl barely escaped a rape attempt in Bahawalpur.

The body of a four-year-old girl was discovered in the sugar cane fields of Mardan; she had been raped and strangled to death.

Policemen in Kasur search in vain to nab the serial killer wanted in the rape case of Zainab, a case that has taken the country by storm.

The news of these horrific incidents keep popping up with no end in sight.

My head spins when I get my daily updates, most of it revolving around child abuse in Pakistan. Has there been a sudden increase in incidents, or are people opening up more about this issue? The truth is that at the moment, more than terrorism, more than war against enemies, and more than cyber crime, Pakistan is embroiled in a war against probably the worst matter of all: sexual abuse of children.

While the perpetrator in the Kasur case continues to mock the security system of the country by successfully eluding them, the nation unleashes its wrath on both the perpetrator and the system. On social media, print, broadcast and even in routine conversations, Pakistanis – from housewives to advocates, from celebrities to scholars – urge awareness, demand justice and plead for no more. But here is where the shocking twist comes in – we plan protests, we share messages, we broadcast news with a young one on our lap, we even manage to get the attention of renowned faces from abroad, we declare fatwas – but nonetheless, the abuse doesn’t seem to end.

This reality check begs consideration to deal with the core issue – the sick, rotten mentality of a large majority of Pakistani men who see women and children as mere objects of pleasure, who love to see fear in the eyes of their victims and who obviously have no shame or regret over their actions. They have no fear, for they strongly believe that the law of the jungle will always rule in Pakistan.

Although many of us still raise eyebrows at the mention of sex education for children, the need of the hour has convinced most of us that to save the future generation, it is inevitable. For the shame in educating your child about not letting a stranger touching his or her private parts is not more than the shock and the shame when the stranger has done exactly that to them. In a rare example, teachers operating in eight local schools run by a local organisation in Sindh’s village of Johi, conducted classes on sex education for their students. Their sex education lessons – starting at age eight – cover changes in their bodies, what their rights are and how to protect themselves. None of the villagers have any objection, and they should be applauded for their efforts and openness regarding such an important issue.

In another instance, four years ago, the government forced an elite private school in Lahore to remove all sex education from its curriculum. “It is against our constitution and religion,” the then president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, Mirza Kashif Ali had said.

While the educated still debate on the necessity of sex education, the root of the problem lies with the uneducated masses, making it necessary for these lessons to be carried out widely. Many of the madrassas or religious schools in the country conduct only Arabic and Quran lessons, with neither an in-depth understanding of the religion, nor any formal education. These schools, with many of them crossing the fine line and breeding terrorists in the name of jihadists, have long remained the hub of child abuse. In the garb of religion, the so-called scholars, with most of them also bearing the brunt of this crime in their adolescence, turn towards the next generation. It is sick to think that this is a cycle that continues to operate.

Last year, when a cleric was caught red-handed with his victim in a madrassa in a village in Punjab, the police were unable to pursue the case, since pressure from militant groups forced the parents to drop all the charges and “forgive” the attacker. This case was only one of the three cases that emerged in southern Punjab in the span of one month, which included the gang rape of a 12-year-old boy by former students of a madrassaand the rape of a 10-year-old who was sodomised by the madrassa’s principal, as reported by The Express Tribune.

According to a senior official at a ministry tasked with registering cases of child sexual abuse, the madrassa system akes up about 2,000,000 children and is infested with sexual abuse cases. He wished to remain anonymous while talking to Tribune, due to a possible threat that could emerge from militant organisations and the country’s blasphemy law, which carries death penalty.

These cases of religious clerics sexually abusing children are so common that you hear so many people sharing similar experiences. Recently, many celebrities came forward with their horror stories of such incidents in the wake of the Zainab tragedy. Fashion designer Maheen Khan also tweeted about she was sexually abused by her qari sahib who used to teach her the Quran:

Just like Pakistan has failed to address the issues of honour killing and honour rape in its rural areas, brutal physical abuse of women and children has grown rampant. The fact is that while the country is screaming hoarse to get justice for Zainab, on a daily basis, girls and boys as young as four-years-old and up to their teenage years continue to be molested and mutilated.

This horrifying situation calls for a systematic, organised campaign for creating awareness and deterrents at the same time. The government institutions, the non-governmental organisations, schools, hospitals, the public, me and you – all of us in Pakistan have to spread the cause. Housewives can educate domestic helpers and school curriculum can target children. Sindh has recently stepped up to try and spread awareness among children so that we can maybe progress towards a safer future. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari announced that the Sindh government is working on campaigns on child sexual abuse so that they can be part of the school curriculum in Sindh. This is a step in the right direction, and we should urge other provinces to join in.

The misconception that sex education is immoral and against our tradition should be cleared immediately. For this, religious clerics can work together with educated scholars to promote the necessity of such lessons and urge every family to take part in this awareness. If talking about sex is taboo, maybe they could design the lectures carefully such that they are able to reach their goal of awareness and still preserve the child’s innocence regarding this subject.

It is important for the media to keep producing serials like Udaaribecause it is the best way to spread awareness amongst a lot of people who are watching such shows. We should keep our voices raised until we are assured that everyone has heard us, and use all the platforms to keep the discussion going. We have forgotten Batool, a six-year-old rape victim still agonised and hospitalised after being dumped in a heap of garbage nearly two months ago in Kasur. Sharaq’s soul also pleads for vengeance, after losing the battle with a monster who took his life away. And who remembers Sumbul, who suffered a similar tragedy in Lahore, four years ago? She had also remained the focus of the media, until justice kept getting delayed and denied, and the limelight slowly faded to a lost memory.

It is absolutely justified that all of us are angry and we want justice of some kind, and hopefully we will get justice, but that is not a long-term solution, because the man who raped and murdered Zainab is just one of the many monsters out there. We cannot just hope and pray that this ends; we have to take practical steps to ensure the safety of our children. This includes educating them of the dangers of this society as well as being aware of their surroundings. Ultimately, as adults, we have a responsibility to our children, and it is high time that we do justice to it.

Shabana Mahfooz

Shabana Mahfooz

The author is a senior media professional with experience in Broadcast Journalism. She has a keen interest and writes on topics of women's rights, foreign affairs, social and cultural issues. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Rahul

    Sex education is hardly the problem. The problem is that Pakistan does not punish deviant and criminal sex so it keeps happening. It is a law and order problem, not an education issue. Pakistan has to stop persecuting honest people like gays and transgenders, and effectively prosecute criminals like pedophiles and rapists.Recommend

  • vinsin

    I see the issue as completely different. Pakistan’s almost zero conviction rate of rape cases is the main issue. Bacha Bazi itself lead to abuse of 10,000 children every year. Recommend

  • Mirza Aasauf Baig

    Why many people get heart attack when we Pakistanis talk about Islamic Education?

    We think true Islamic Education & impementation of Laws is the solution of all such Problems.Recommend

  • Xahid

    What does it have to do with Sex education, that’s completely different subject.
    They just need to hang the rapists instead of giving them time trial.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely said….and I agree the long term solution is sex education to start from an early age. But it is absolutely necessary that steps to depoliticize the police, implement laws that are on the books, ensure speedy trials and punishment to act as a deterrent and scientific methods used to determine the crime and the criminal…..and most of all there has to be the will to do what is right by those who are supposed to do what is right.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    Yes Pakistan does lag behind in imparting justice, but sex education can help create awareness. Along with that counselling of various forms is very much needed to cleanse the mentality.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    I absolutely agree. Thank you for your insight.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    Yes the rapists should be punished harshly without lingering, but first we have to prevent others from becoming such rapists and for that we really need to expand our education, both in terms of literacy and religious. Secondly, sex education would create awareness and help avoid unwanted situations.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    Islamic education if imparted keeping in its true essence may help solve the problem. But we are still unable to fully understand Islamic teachings, there is much dispute in its interpretation. And madrassahs which are centres are of Islamic education are becoming a hub of child abuse! So that is not the complete answer, we do need to involve other elementsRecommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    The conviction rate is a major problem and we do need a harsh deterrent. But I see this more as a rather psychological problem: sexual frustration, misogynist attitudes, above all illiteracy are adding to the crime. We need to get to the root of the problem.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    All factors contribute, lack of conviction rate, lack of sex education and partly illiteracyRecommend

  • Khurram

    I have been working in Iqra Rauza-Tul-Atfal trust for the past six years and no such case has been reporte. Also, for your information, Saint Michael’s, Saint Joseph’s are not a Madarssah and yet cases of child abuse are rampant there but you seem to ignore them.

    As for, interpretation of Islamic teachings may be you have been looking in the wrong places for the answers.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    As far as the interpretation of Islamic teachings is concerned, this I say with regret that if we would have interpreted relevant parts properly, we may have been able to solve a lot of issues. But since there is dispute between various sects, a comprehensive interpretation in some areas is still lacking. Secondly, we are talking about a majority, and while there may have been cases in some convent schools like abuse scandals take place in other countries, the higher numbers are in the madrassahs, as attributed to the publication itself. And of course all institutions are not the same. The institution where you work may have been exemplary, its only that all are not.Recommend

  • Amir

    “the sick, rotten mentality of a large majority of Pakistani men who see women and children as mere objects of pleasure, who love to see fear in the eyes of their victims and who obviously have no shame or regret over their actions.”

    Large majority? really?? talk about sweeping statements and sensationalism.Recommend

  • Amir

    Thank you for pointing the obvious…rape and murder has hardly anything to do with sex education…. delivering effective punishments to offenders is the key here but that doesn’t seem to attract a lot of traffic for columnists..Recommend

  • Amir

    literacy and sex education are the same? you also know the answer but you choose to ignore it as sex education topic sells like a hot cake.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    The number of cases emerging on a daily basis are reflective of the mentality. As the headline of this article says, Zainab was clearly not the last neither the first. And this is in consideration of the fact that all cases are not reported. The ones which are, are enough to raise an alarm and urgency to curb child and women abuse.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    Literacy and sex education are not the same. But only literacy is not the answer. Many literate men and women are also sexually frustrated. We need to break taboos and deal with the issue openly. And the topics are not for sale, they are meant to help raise voices.Recommend

  • Shabana Mahfooz

    Punishment is given for an act of crime and it is a necessity, but why does the crime take place? When we try to tackle the root cause, sex education can play a vital role and so can literacy.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Ofcourse that is a psychological problem and a power game. The solution to most of those problem will be to have a secular and a liberal democracy and society – and that is not going to be easy. Changing human thinking is a very time consuming and slow process – that take generations.

    Pakistani indifference attitude and lack of empathy is the major problem, obsession with things happening in some other countries, rapes in India, looking towards religion for perfect answers, living in denial, believing in conspiracy theories, culture of shame and honor, aversion to scientific thinking etc are problematic. But I also see many of these issues present in many Muslim majority countries and within Muslim communities.

    Instead of demanding justice for Zainab, a protests demanding better laws related to sexual abuse and fast track courts, police training in scientific investigation of crime as rapes etc would have been better.

    I see this as miss opportunity in that respect.Recommend

  • G

    100% agreed with writer’s views. Better late than never . In past 70years or more people kept mum and ashamed to share the horror of child abuse in Palistan. What they experienced never surfaced not even to their mother leave aside the media or police. Child abuse of boys and girls has been the blackest reality of Pakistani society at large. I had this trauma myself and till age of 49 it still remain a horror stigma.
    I’m glad that elite people like Mahin Khan and Nadia Jamil opened up this sensitive topic which is a grave taboo of Common Pakistanis. Through media we can organise talk shows on child abuse and prevention. On live shows adults who have been victims in childhood can share their experiences as well. Collectively a solution can be found how we can drive away the evil of child sexual abuse from society forever.Recommend

  • FarrukhSafdar

    100% agreed with writer’s views. Better late than never . In past 70years or more people kept mum and ashamed to share the horror of child abuse in Pakistan. What they experienced never surfaced not even to their mother leave aside the media or police. Child abuse of boys and girls has been the blackest reality of Pakistani society at large. I had this trauma myself and till age of 49 it still remain a horror stigma.
    I’m glad that elite people like Mahin Khan and Nadia Jamil opened up this sensitive topic which is a grave taboo of Common Pakistanis. Through media we can organise talk shows on child abuse and prevention. On live shows adults who have been victims in childhood can share their experiences as well. Collectively a solution can be found how we can drive away the evil of child sexual abuse from society forever.Recommend