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Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

“Those pictures are fake. Why do you want to create problems for us? Do you want us to flee our native town in shame?” This is what the father of a boy who had been abused and videotaped by a man in Sargodha told the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Amin, the alleged abuser, has confessed that he had been selling child pornography online to international buyers for the last few years. He used to lure children on the pretext of teaching them computer skills. The FIA officials termed the episode as the “first of its kind”.

The heinousness of the incident is hair-raising and perhaps the international dimension is unprecedented; tragically, child abuse and pornography are neither hair-raising nor unprecedented, neither in Pakistan nor in the world. A similar incident in Kasur a couple of years ago was supposed to be a watershed, “a first of its kind”. Petty political expediency, however, prevailed over the innocence of our children.

In 2012, it was revealed that powerful men, including members of parliament, had been sexually abusing children as young as seven during the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom and the scandal had been covered up through the intervention of British intelligence agencies. In 2006, the United States passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act named after Adam Walsh, a 7-year-old boy who was kidnapped and decapitated.

The Vatican’s inaction in holding priests involved in child abuse accountable has been spotlighted repeatedly. In 2015, allegations of abuse by French peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo surfaced from internal United Nations reports. These are just a few examples of hundreds of countless such crimes.

Back in Pakistan in March 2016, the parliament passed a law criminalising sexual assault against minors, child pornography and trafficking. The legislation is a necessary condition for protection of children and holding perpetrators of abuse against them accountable; however, not a sufficient one. The response of a senior police official to the Senate Committee on Human Rights question regarding why the police remained unaware of the Kasur child abuse scandal with an alleged 280 victims and more than 400 videos was telling.

He responded, partly, by saying, “Moreover, the police is usually busy with security arrangements and countering terrorist attacks … so such crimes are not a priority.” The FIA official investigating the Sargodha incident quoted a 14-year-old victim as saying, “Please do not contact me again … Leave me out of this ... it is too shameful a thing to talk about and I have nothing to do with it.”

These two responses capture the breadth of the problem in holding perpetrators accountable for child abuse; no one wants to talk about it because it is a taboo; on the rare occasion when somebody does stick their neck out, the police claim to have bigger fish to fry.

The problem of child abuse is the problem of all abuse; the victims are less powerful than the perpetrators. It is exacerbated by the fact that the victims are in most cases powerless to even speak up. They have to do it through intermediaries, their guardians, who in most cases are the parents. As an example, the fact that the abuser in Sargodha, Amin, was paying parents 3,000-5,000 rupees to send children for computer training could be a reason why it took so long for the scandal to become known.

The complex problem of sexual violence against children demands investment in education, awareness and, of course, holding perpetrators accountable. In a country with a fragile definition of masculinity, misplaced honour and absence of faith in the ability of the state to deliver justice, this battle is an uphill one. However, this undoubtedly starts from successfully prosecuting the perpetrators in Sargodha, Kasur, Swat and elsewhere in the country.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a lawyer, a columnist and a member of the Human Rights Watch.