One act of sexual violence can trigger an avalanche.
A long time ago a minor boy named Sohail Shehzad was molested by his ustaad at a naan shop where he was working as an apprentice. In 2011, Sohail would be apprehended for the offence of raping a minor. He was sentenced by a court to five years in prison. He got out after serving a year and a half. In 2019, Sohail would rape and murder three children in Kasur. During an interrogation he would reveal his own past history of sexual abuse.
There is a lot to unpack here. Sohail Shehzad was a part of Pakistan’s notorious child labour market. This allowed him to be in a situation where he could be abused. He never received psychological treatment, nor could he, given his economic situation. In 2011, despite committing a heinous offence, he was released after a year and a half. While he was in Kasur, there seems to be no evidence of the police making the people aware or keeping an eye on a known sexual predator. In this story, there are layers upon layers of sickness.
This is what happens when you treat serious issues as non-issues. Child labour; taboos around psychological treatment; inept courts and policing; transform men into monsters. In Kasur, these monsters roam free.
Kasur has now become a word that no longer means a city in Punjab. It is now synonymous with paedophilia. The victim of unfulfilled promises of successive governments. The script has now become far too familiar: a JIT, a commission, suspension of police officers, and talks on moral decay. Wash your hands and move on. Until the next one. We’ve seen it in 2015, 2018, and now in 2019.
To be sure, some steps have been taken by the Punjab government. It did amend the Pakistan Penal Code to specify offences of a sexual nature against children. And Usman Buzdar did install a network of CCTV cameras in Kasur. But these reforms do not get to the root of the problem. The view still prevails in the government that harsher punishments will curb sexual abuse. This sentiment was recently echoed by the Chairperson of the Punjab Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, who while speaking to The New York Times called for harsher laws to be instituted.
But if laws with severe punishments were supposed to cure this disease, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. There is a long list of laws dealing with children and sexual abuse in Pakistan. Yet, we see little improvement in the condition of our children. A report prepared by the National Commissioner for Children (working under the Federal Ombudsperson) shows this lack of improvement. The report collected data over a 10-year period and showed that of the 4,139 cases reported of child sexual abuse in Pakistan in 2017, as many as 1,089 occurred in Punjab. It shows a consistent increase in these crimes from 6.2% in 2008 to 16.2% in 2017. In the last decade, there have been 272 incidents in Kasur alone.
Clearly, the laws aren’t enough. There are broader issues at play.
If the government can’t prevent abuse, it can at least ensure justice. But that isn’t happening either. The report of the National Commissioner states that of the cases instituted before the courts in Punjab pertaining to child sexual abuse over the previous decade, 75% were still undecided. Despite provisions in the law that families of the victims are to be provided free legal aid, not a single-family was given free legal aid by the Punjab government. Furthermore, there are still no Child Protection Courts in Kasur, nor are there any Juvenile Courts. The powers of these courts are being exercised by Additional District and Sessions Judges who are already flooded with other cases. When the trials do happen, they happen in open court with no provisions existing for on-camera proceedings. The report points out how people in Kasur fundamentally distrust lawyers. A father of a victim recounts how a senior lawyer threatened him in court by telling him if he didn’t withdraw his case he would get his child’s DNA report changed.
So much for justice.
The Government of Punjab has to work towards curbing the underlying causes behind sexual abuse. Once it happens, it changes the life of the children involved — that is, if they survive at all. So far, we have only been reactive, not proactive.
First, Pakistan has to tackle the broader problem of preventing children from being in environments that are conducive to abuse. That means ending and preventing child labour. Again, despite much legalese being expended on such a topic, the practice is prevalent throughout the country. Children are working in the homes of Pakistan’s rich and famous; they are employed in workshops, restaurants, and a host of other environments where no child should be working. This fact by itself shows how much we value our children. We look away from the very beginning.
Second, we must also educate. Sexual abuse is a taboo topic in Pakistan. So is the psychological treatment for both – those who are abused and those who are guilty of the abuse. Had Sohail Shehzad gotten psychological treatment after he was abused, perhaps many lives would have been saved. Had he been given treatment when he was caught in 2011, perhaps three lives would not have been lost in 2019. Sexual abuse requires counselling. Parents who prevent their children from talking about abuse openly are banishing children to a life of trauma. How that trauma manifests can eventually end up destroying not only the child’s life but other lives as well.
Finally, the government must work with psychologists and psychiatrists to examine what is happening in Kasur. At this point, there is a broad problem that can only be assessed through the use of people with actual knowledge of the conditions that lead people down the path to becoming sexual predators. With these people, the government can undertake community education programmes, help the police create a profile to spot the traits of a potential abuser and create rehabilitation programmes for victims and their families.
And while at it, the Government of Punjab might want to think about actually implementing some of those laws that it keeps churning out.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2019.