Sexual exploitation of children is an open secret in Pakistan – one which we are still too ashamed to speak up about. With reports suggesting that up to 90 per cent of street children across the country are victims of sexual assault and each new day, 11 new cases of abuse and other heinous crimes are registered, it is shocking that this phenomenon still remains a taboo.
With little being done by law enforcement agencies to crack down on such activities, a steep rise in such incidents has been observed.
In January, the high profile rape and murder case of a seven-year-old minor from Kasur caused national outrage. This is just one case which gained national prominence, thousands of others go unreported or are shoved under the rug.
With the country preparing for polls, it would be a timely exercise to examine mainstream political parties’ contributions and opinions on such incidents as it reflects their will to do ‘more’ for the society.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)
The Pakistan Muslime League – Nawaz (PML-N) ruled the country for the past five years and had the strength in the assembly to push through laws which safeguarded the rights of minors and afforded protection to them.
In 2018, in the aftermath of the high profile Kasur rape and murder case, Sanaullah said, “a child’s safety is the parent’s responsibility.” While party leaders condemned the acts, Sanaullah’s stance on the matter gave very little relief to the party. Earlier this year, Shehbaz formed a committee for the prevention of child abuse and for recommendations to ensure the government played its part. The provincial ministers of law and education overlook the committee.
The 14th National Assembly achieved little in its fight against the crucial issue. In 2016, the Senate passed a bill which criminalised sexual assault against minors and became the first such bill in the country’s legislative history. However, the punishment for the crime was a modest seven years in prison. Last year, a bill attempting to enhance the punishment of child abusers was rejected by the NA’s sub-committee.
Naeema Kishwar Khan, the convener of the committee, attempted to justify the move and said that sexual abuse does not “amount to rape”.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)
Enjoying almost unhindered power since 2008 in Sindh, Pakistan Peoples Party Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari claimed in January 2018 that the provincial government is attempting to inculcate an awareness program on child sexual abuse in the school curriculum. The party has also supported capital punishment and public hangings of those involved in such crimes. While these appear to be tall promises, the assembly passed the bill and Bilawal announced swift implementation as well.
In January, the PPP chairperson announced that the provincial government has set up child protection units in all 29 districts of the province. He also announced that life skills will be introduced as part of the school curriculum from the new academic year. “Earlier, people did not discuss child abuse openly but after the Kasur incident they want to find out the solution to such problems,” he added.
The Sindh Assembly was informed that more than 960 cases of abuse against minors were reported in Sindh since 2011, further showing the need for effective implementation and execution of legislation.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)
The 2014 documentary Pakistan’s Hidden Shame by Mohammed Naqvi revealed that nine out of ten street boys in Peshawar are subjected to sexual abuse in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. PTI Chairperson Imran Khan promised to address the issue in a meeting, however, there is little evidence to support Imran actually fulfilled the promise he made publicly.
A glance at the K-P Assembly archives of the last five years shows that the topic was hardly spoken of in the sessions. Interestingly, it was a PML-N lawmaker which tabled the motion to condemn the Kasur incident and call for exemplary punishment against the accused.
Senior journalist Aamir Ahmed Khan told The Express Tribune, “child abuse has never been a priority of the governments.”
The statement gestured to the lack of implementation of laws and security in the country, but also the government’s inability to tackle or conduct constructive dialogue on such a pressing issue.
Analyst Mosharraf Zaidi expressed anger at the lack of political parties formed to represent the children and fight for their case. With no representation, Zaidi believes that minors of Pakistan are stuck in a ‘cycle’ which will never see justice served to the victims.