A common belief in Pakistan is that since God is the creator of kids, He is also their provider and protector. While this is true, it seems to have certainly absolved the state, communities and even many parents of their vital responsibilities when it comes to protecting children. Using Allah ki marzi as the standard line, brutal injustices and in-your-face exploitation continues unabated. The most recent expose that has yet again jolted the ‘national conscience’ (assuming there is one) is the Kasur scandal where hundreds of children were sexually abused, videotaped and coerced into silence. Even the parents were blackmailed, and ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ played overwhelming roles in the whole shameful saga.
After the Kasur scandal became public knowledge, the initial response of the state was incredible. The police first called this child pornography as some sort of a legitimate offshoot of a land dispute. Later, under pressure, it had to change the story and now some routine ‘action’ has taken place. Some stalwarts of the ruling party, the PML-N, behaved even worse. Instead of accepting that such crimes were happening right under the noses of their poster boys for good governance, the Punjab chief minister and his loyal bureaucracy, what we saw were callous, indifferent statements, which shocked everyone.
We do suffer from collective amnesia. Every other day, there are reports of children, sometimes babies, being raped, molested or even killed. Each time such a report hits media headlines, there is an inquiry, which is more often than not just a PR stunt, and then it is back to business as usual. True, paedophilia is not a Pakistan-specific issue. Even advanced countries are battling with these trends. But that is no excuse for us to deny the extent of the problem in Pakistan. According to Sahil — a child rights NGO — in 2014 alone, there were 3,508 reported cases of child rape across the country. This means 10 or more children were abused every day. And these are only the reported cases.
Let’s face it: there is an eerie silence, a certain level of acceptability of such vile practices. The media occasionally reports how little boys are molested in seminaries. A recent case was that of a young child, who hanged to death on the upper storey of a Lahore mosque. In some public schools, teachers make children undertake their menial work (I have seen it myself) and corporal punishment remains widespread. In fact, physical beating of children (at least a few slaps) is culturally considered to be important for personality development!
The child pornography scandal comes a few months after the brutal massacre of at least 132 schoolchildren at the Army Public School in Peshawar, which happened to ‘avenge’ a war that these children had nothing to do with. The ‘national conscience’, apparently, woke up even then. Some key policy shifts may have come about, but it is too early to assess their results. What has, however, ensued in the wake of the December 2014 attack is further brutalisation, with the execution of nearly 200 convicts sentenced to death by a deeply flawed criminal justice system.
This embedded violence in our society has many progenitors. At the centre of this quagmire is a state that is neither accountable nor responsive to citizens and, worse, has embraced a permanent policy of outsourcing its powers to mullahs, militants and auxiliary mafia. This is why, despite the international commitments made by Pakistan, according to estimates provided by Unicef and the ILO, 10-12 million children work as labourers and some of them are slaves. Yes, slaves in a supposedly free country.
The overall culture of neglecting children is startling. Nearly half of them don’t go to school as per recent estimates. Around 50 per cent drop out of school for a host of reasons. Mind you, the right to education is a constitutional right, according to Article 25-A, inserted in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Basic campaigns, such as vaccinating children, have been difficult to administer, making Pakistan one of the few countries where poliovirus continues to afflict and endanger the futures of children.
We have all seen children toil in vehicle repair workshops, often without wages or security. Middle class homes across the country employ children, who are often treated like slaves. And street children — often begging — are a daily sight. There is a high level of tolerance for all this and a covert resignation to such blatant manifestations of abuse. There is little discussion in the mainstream media about the structural reasons that underwrite such inequality, attitudes and poverty. Television debates are woefully devoid of substantive issues, such as the plight of the poor and the marginalised, of which a large number are children of a lesser god.
This is the moral darkness that engulfs us all. The hollowness of the formalism of constitutional mandates, international treaties, corpus of laws and rules is exposed by the everyday reality of a brutalised society. A plethora of ‘laws’ is rendered meaningless by an apathetic, if not hostile, state machinery, and tribal-feudal norms effortlessly carried over into urban spaces. Not to mention how the gatekeepers of our consciousness — fatalism, kismet — reinforce the status quo. Since the 1980s, popular culture has endorsed such inertia. From television soaps, sermons and game shows to popular best-selling literature (much of which is now religious in nature), all endorse inertia and resignation, and reinforce silence.
Violence against children and denial of their basic rights happen not due to the sins of society (as argued by an army of faith merchants), but due to its warped values and state failures. The institutional architecture to deal with children’s rights is dysfunctional. Child protection bureaus — cosmetic, under-capacity outfits — are not the solution for the challenge before us. Parliament and the provincial assemblies will have to deliberate through their standing committees and direct the provincial governments to improve the structures that can monitor and implement policy commitments, and penalise those who fail to do their jobs. We need mass campaigns — a Cultural Revolution of our own — to change the attitudes that lead to the silence and inertia that surrounds child abuse. All such long-term measures must begin with effective, timely and transparent prosecution of the Kasur gangsters so that a semblance of justice can be delivered.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2015.