Child sexual abuse: Breaking the silence

Published: January 6, 2013
Child sexual abuse may be more rampant than you think. The only way to safeguard children is awareness - both for the children and the parents. Find out what you and your children need to know to stay safe in a dangerous world.

Child sexual abuse may be more rampant than you think. The only way to safeguard children is awareness - both for the children and the parents. Find out what you and your children need to know to stay safe in a dangerous world.

Sifting through the glossy flash cards that have drawings of two children in their underclothes, one can easily conjure an image of a classroom: children listen to their teacher intently as she holds up the cards and speaks to them as if this is a storytelling session. But this is not some fairytale being related; it is an important lesson in life.

The teacher points out on the flash card, “These are our private parts. We keep them covered at all times.”

She moves on: a caretaker is bathing the child. And in the next: a doctor is doing a physical examination with his shirt pulled up. All good touches, she tells them.

But then, in the following flashcard, a man in a classroom appears to slide his hands into a boy’s shirt. And in another one, a mustached man in a shalwar kameez — the archetypical ‘uncle’ — places his hand on a visibly uncomfortable girl’s knee. “If anyone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, sad or hurt, that is a bad touch. You should immediately tell a grown-up. Even if they tell you to keep it a secret,” are the teacher’s instructions.

cartoon 02

The flashcards are part of a toolkit handed out to schoolteachers by Aahung, an NGO working to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights in Pakistan. “Adults can link certain behaviour with sex, but children cannot,” explains Sheena Hadi, director of Aahung. “Even if a child is running around naked in the house, it has no sexual connotations for them at all. For an adult, they see nudity and they associate that with a number of things in their adult mind,” she says.

Children of ages between seven and 11 are considered most susceptible to sexual abuse — they are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives for molesters to make advances because they seem to have come out of the ‘baby’ phase and are maturing. If older than that, there are chances they can fight back or speak out, endangering the attacker. Adolescents are also physically bigger and hence harder to control.

Hadi says that the perception that girls are more prone to abuse is one of the biggest myths. And so is the idea that children from higher income backgrounds are less susceptible since they do not venture out of their homes by themselves.

In reality, boys can be accessible in madrassas or schools, and children from affluent backgrounds have much bigger houses where abuse can go on undetected.

For a parent, this is a frightening prospect. Perhaps this is the reason why they like to brush it under the carpet. “Parents dread such a conversation with their children. ‘What if we scare the child?’ is what they feel,” says Hadi.

Hence, it is imperative that you prepare your child, so that he or she is empowered enough to escape or preempt a possible situation. The Express Tribune Magazine sat down with the Aahung team and discussed how to protect a child from sexual abuse and what to do in case the unthinkable happens.

How to protect your child from sexual abuse?

This is one of those situations where a little parental paranoia can be a good thing. Here are a few things all parents need to know:

As a rule of thumb, be vigilant and don’t leave the child unsupervised for a long period of time with an adult, be it the tutor, the maulvi sahib teaching the Quran, a trusted domestic servant or even an aunt or uncle. Child sexual abuse is known to be carried out not just by strangers, but also by close family members and acquaintances that enjoy the trust of parents and have easy access to the child.


Pay attention to your child’s mood changes. Aggression or depression, eating or sleeping disorders, loss of interest in daily affairs or academics, fear of or aversion towards certain persons or places may be telltale signs.

Develop a close and friendly relationship with your child that gives him/her the confidence to talk to you even about intimidating things.

If children do not like how they are handled by a relative or refuse to be kissed or hugged by them, don’t be angry.  They may lose the ability to refuse a molester too.


Some age-specific measures you can take to avert child sexual abuse:


Ages 3-5: identifying private body parts and giving ownership

At the age of three you may feel a child is too young to understand these things, or you may feel it’s too early to expose a young soul to the perversion of the world just yet. But Hadi rightly says that your child “has a very deep intuition about what is right and wrong”. This is why the earlier you start making your child more aware, the better. The key element of course is “how”.

You may have taught the child about the “eyes” and “nose” but don’t shy away from identifying and naming their private parts too, even if you give them your own names. They should know that private parts can only be touched by trusted adults while changing or giving a bath, or perhaps a doctor.

cartoon 01

“Don’t use words of shame to describe their body,” adds Aisha Ijaz. “Don’t spank their hand if they touch their bodies because children internalise these feelings and are too embarrassed to report incidents of abuse involving these parts.”

4 Onwards: developing decision-making skills

You want the child to be able to say “no” if inappropriate advances are made. Give him the confidence to make decisions and take action by himself, starting from everyday matters. For this your parenting ‘command and control’ will sometimes have to take a backseat. Don’t simply instruct them or make choices for them all the time; explain how they may get hurt if they are going to do something potentially harmful: “If you don’t wear something you might get cold” or “you can cut yourself if you handle the knife,” rather than forbidding them from it. A naïve, pushover kid will be more susceptible to instructions of the abuser.

Age 5-9: differentiating the good from the bad touch

Once a child knows how to differentiate between public and private body parts, he or she can graduate to learning how a bad touch can be told apart from a good one. No demonstrations needed; mention stuff to them casually and privately while they play, bathe, or do their usual stuff, so that they don’t get overwhelmed. Tell them that good touches are those which make you feel happy, loved, or comforted, such as a parent’s hug or a teacher’s pat on the back. Bad touches are those that evoke feelings of fear, discomfort and pain. Or even any touch that is new or unusual.

You can even use stories to illustrate good and bad touches that you can refer to later: “Remember what happened in the story about..?” Role plays depicting a possible situation of abuse prepare the child for an eventuality too: Ask them questions like: “If a person tells you not to tell anyone what they are doing, what should you do?”

What to do if your child becomes a victim?

Ask the child to explain in his own words what happened, but don’t push him into giving details if he does not want to. They may want to talk at a different time. In fact, they may reveal details in stages. They could begin relating a story and then say they forgot the details. Then they might start the story again some other time, but say it happened to someone else or change the details.

Remain calm and do not overreact because the child may become scared.

Do not outrightly question or doubt the child’s story by saying “Are you sure that is what happened?” or “are you really telling me the truth?” Trust your child’s instinct.

Hug him or her and give him the confidence that it’s not his fault. And reassure the child that he did the right thing by telling you.

Show your child to a medical practitioner if there are signs of injury, and a psychologist if the child has trouble relating the incident. Therapy is carried out through art and play.

Refrain from saying negative things about the abuser. Often it is someone the child is close to and the child may feel terrible about implicating the molestor. In fact many molesters are very loving and playful with their victims.

Try to remove the child from the situation.



Counseling services and drop-in centers:

Alleviate Addiction Suffering Trust (AAS), Karachi

(+92-21) 3411149

Aangan-Rozan, Islamabad

(+92-51) 2890505-7

Jeet Healing Centre, Sahil, Islamabad

(+92-51) 2260636, 2856950

Konpal Child Abuse Prevention Society, Karachi

(+92-21) 3455-2220

Madadgar, Karachi

(+92-21) 5685824, 5219902, 111-911-922

Protection and Help of Children Against Abuse and Neglect (Pahchaan), Lahore

(+92-42) 35871221

War Against Rape (WAR), Karachi

(92-51) 5373008


Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 6th, 2013.

Like Express Tribune Magazine on Facebook to stay informed and join the conversation.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (17)

  • Disgusted
    Jan 6, 2013 - 6:22PM

    This is a way of life in Pakistan. The schools with hostels are hot bed of homosexuality where the teachers are at the top of the food chain.

    Take Divisional Public School in Model Town Lahore, it offers student hostels. The new comers are raped by senior boys and its called the wedding night. The hostel in- charge are teachers who will have their pick first. Back in the 70s there was a teacher named Javed Bukari who would have a boy sleep with him every night. He was even seen topping a boy in the train when he took the Boy Scouts camping.

    So I suggest that you do a sting operations and those found guilty are then punished publicly. Castration is a good place to start.


  • Wajahat
    Jan 6, 2013 - 8:46PM

    Very good.


  • Insaan
    Jan 7, 2013 - 5:00AM

    Author “Refrain from saying negative things about the abuser. Often it is someone the child is close to and the child may feel terrible about implicating the molester. In fact many molesters are very loving and playful with their victims.”

    Why protect abusers? It seems like to a certain level Pakistan society wants to ignore the sexual abuser. Just go and search YouTube “Pakistan father rape”. I don’t know what point author is making by saying “In fact many molesters are very loving and playful with their victims.”


  • Huma
    Jan 7, 2013 - 3:17PM

    someone needs to go and check this Divisional Pubic School Hostel at Medel Town lahore immediately! This is very alarming!


  • Insaan
    Jan 7, 2013 - 7:12PM

    @Huma: This sounds more like an acceptable practice. Adults doing with adults. It may be happening in many other schools. There may be things happening in girl’s hostels too.

    Why don’t students complain to police or tell about this to their parents?

    Why author is suggesting “Refrain from saying negative things about the abuser. Often it is someone the child is close to and the child may feel terrible about implicating the molester”

    Under this kind of mindset a girl who complains may be blamed for the problem or may be accused of lying if abuser is close relative. A Palestinian girl was raped by her 3 brothers and her mother did the justice by killing the girl.

    ABUSERS have to be punished whether they are close relatives or not. In some cases if abuser happens to be Moulvi, victims parents are pressurized to withdraw cases.


  • Zeerak
    Jan 8, 2013 - 8:51AM

    Mifrah! A very nice sharing by you. I personally recommend that on gross root level this education should be spread.

    My mom is a teacher. During our childhood, she taught us likewise. We were aware at very little age about what is bad and good touch. Although she had no such source of information by which she might have become aware that how to teach young girls…. But hats off to her that what I am reading now, she told us in the exact manner. :)

    Child abuse is a forbidden talk in almost 90% of the families in Pakistan, even in the educated class. We have to spread it.


  • Mrs. Munim
    Jan 8, 2013 - 11:39AM

    Thanks for the article, Mifrah. As a mother I am very concerned about how to teach my kids about abuse and how to help them prevent bieng raped – yes it is a very big yet silent part of our society.
    @insan: there are many reasons that the author is advising us to not say negative things about the abuser in front of the child. A few that i understand from this and other articles that i have read on the topic are:
    The molester usually is a much loved family member or friend. That’s why the child had let his/her guard down in the first place. Right after the incident, when the poor child is confused and hurt and doesnt know what to say, creating a scene by abusing the molester only makes the child feel guilty and ‘dirty’.
    It has been observed that this makes the child go back on his/ her story and deny that anything had happened at all. And believe me, it is not a reaction of a child in a perticuler culture, but the universal reaction.
    what should be done is, that after you have all the facts, and are doing your best to provide therapy – then you should let the child know that what happened was wrong, and that the abuser is a person to be avoided at all costs.


  • Nael
    Jan 8, 2013 - 5:36PM

    @Disgusted- You are confusing homosexuality with pedophilia. Pedophilia is sexual relations between a child and adult of either sex.


  • GS@Y
    Jan 9, 2013 - 12:29AM

    @Disgusted: That is some eye-opening and troubling information. I hope something is done about it, and soon. But please don’t confuse homosexuality with child abuse. The first may be controversial in our society, but sexual relations between adults are their own business. Raping children and taking advantage of their innocence, however, is clearly reprehensible and a crime.


  • Anony
    Jan 9, 2013 - 12:51AM

    I have been molested by my own cousins when I was very small. Till date I haven’t told anyone. One of the cousin passed away and other is still alive. I still have nightmares about these occurrences. Infact my whole personality has been tarred by this mess. People, stop ur owns from messing up with you kids. Paedophilia and rape in Pakistan is so rampant, the people around you are after young boys because of the frustration that they face in our suffocating society. So folks keep a good eye on your kids and educate them to protect themselves from predators.


  • Insaan
    Jan 9, 2013 - 5:07AM

    @Anony: “Pedophilia and rape in Pakistan is so rampant, the people around you are after young boys because of the frustration that they face in our suffocating society…I have been molested by my own cousins when I was very small. Till date I haven’t told anyone”

    Not every one reacts to sexual abuse in the same way. I feel most people forget about these things, some become child molesters themselves. For some it can become a psychological problem. Were your cousins also young kids when it happened? How old were you when you remembered that abuse?

    You need to talk to some one you can trust. Don’t talk to your family. No one knows who you are, so you can share a little bit here.

    If you don’t feel better soon, get some counseling.


  • ali
    Jan 9, 2013 - 4:44PM

    This is such a nice way to put up a very serious and sensitive issue . Its like every where every single city .every kid has to go through this weired and hard stage regardless of their sex. I had my cousins and few strangers doing weired things to me and me being a 24 year old man I still think of tjose things which happened to me. I guess the remedy is to educate our kids and encourage them to share . I wish it was not like this as it really affects you all along your life


  • samaha
    Jan 9, 2013 - 6:06PM

    its really nice seeing issues like these coming in the light. i remember reading these things as i was growing up in magazines and such things need to be highlighted. from educating the child to the parents its a must thing and i think in schools, colleges such campaigns should be run. its the societal taboo regarding things like abuse and harassment that has made it go unnoticed and unreported for years. we need to break this silence !


  • Maheen
    Jan 11, 2013 - 4:37AM

    Actually, I would love to see a Pakistani drama focused on this topic. So many Pakistanis watch and enjoy dramas, and our dramas teach about good and bad behavior in an indirect way. I think we should encourage and write to producers and directors, people like Momina Duraid of Humsafar and Sher-e-Zaat fame, to present this topic in a drama.

    There are so many Pakistani children and families suffering (I know of too many to list). I know one person who was repeatedly sodomized for years by his own uncle (father’s brother) who was living with him at the time; his sisters were molested by this same uncle and this animal is now married with his own kids and living with his brother and family where there are also small children. I pray that he is not harming his own children and nephews and nieces, but I have no way of finding out.

    Another person was abused by his grandfather, who would molest him while sleeping. His grandfather insisted that this boy sleep with him. The mother did not understand why the old man insisted, and this poor boy was abused.

    This is urgent and there is no way any Muslim society should ever allow such disgusting, unIslamic abuse to happen. Abusers need to be shamed and punished. Right now, Pakistani society rewards abusers and molesters by blaming the victim and keeping this crime a secret. May Allah guide us to be just and may He protect our children.

    And as the article advises, never EVER let your child out of your sight. No one, especially a man, can be trusted no matter how old, religious, or close to the family he is. And NEVER let your child ever sleep over at someone else’s house unless you are there, even if it is a relative.


  • farida ahmed
    Jan 13, 2013 - 4:20AM

    Time has come to open up a bit and start SEX EDUCATION lessons. Many people are mistaken that sex education means how to have sex. But on the contrary its all about growing up and keeping safe. I work ina primary school and t9-11 age range children are given lessons about transition fromchildhood into adulthood. Also children are told to distinguished between good touch and bad touch. Stories are told about strangers and not to take anything from them. Also child helpline is free to call.Posters are mounted all over the school for reporting any form of abuse-
    About couple a moths ago some education minister of Punjab said thatSEX EDUCATION is a western idea and we can not poison our chiildren with this idea.
    Parents speciallymothers should also be educated about child abuse so that they can keep their kids safe .


  • Arif
    Jan 15, 2013 - 4:19PM

    You should be very careful the Madrassas your children go to. They are notorious but still many parents are too naive and trusting. My advice is have your children taught at home.


  • Sahibzada Shabir Ahmad
    Jan 16, 2013 - 8:53AM

    Issue tweeted to CM Shahbaz Sharif @CMShehbaz, regarding “Divisional Public School in Model Town Lahore” — lets also taking some practical steps, at least we can give information to the concerned.


More in Magazine