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

Published: January 17, 2018
Email

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 tweets @Shamahf2 (twitter.com/Shamahf2)

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