Illustration by Rohail Safdar
Illustration by Rohail Safdar

Ghulam Nabi, a poor resident of Mohmand tribal district, pulled out a two-inch-thick bundle of visiting cards from his pocket in front of television cameras and asked what he could do with those. “People come and give me their visiting cards but they cannot bring back my Farishta,” he said, referring to his 10-year-old daughter who was found murdered in Islamabad’s Shahzad Town area last month.

Nabi asked people not to visit his house anymore. Otherwise he would be compelled to leave his residence. It is a house of mourning but dignitaries come here to address the news media, he said.

His words were a protest against a tragic pattern that cases of child sexual abuse follow in Pakistan.

These cases take place every day, perhaps every hour. Despite this, we express our surprise and disgust each time a case gets picked up, for whatever reasons, by the media. All the well known personalities – whether politicians or those from non-governmental organisations – suddenly start flocking at the victim’s house, in front of the press clubs or inside television studios. And then nothing happens.

How could we have treated Nabi’s daughter differently from any other child abuse victim?

A pretty Pashtun girl, she vanished on May 15. Her father went to a police station to file a missing person report after she did not return home by that evening. The police told him to wait. She might have eloped with somebody, they suggested. Her body was found on May 20. Even then the police were reluctant to register a case. It was only after her family and some political activists blocked a major intersection in Islamabad that the case was registered.

By then, it was too late for Farishta and her parents. She was gone forever — like so many other young victims of sexual abuse.

It did not have to be this way. If the police had acted like conscientious public servants and taken immediate action upon her father’s complaint, she could have been found alive. But it was not to be and we do not know if and when that will change.

Sexual abuse of children exists in every society. Governments cannot be blamed if and when it happens. But governments must be held answerable when police fail to take appropriate and necessary action, when proper laws do not exist, when victims of abuse are ridiculed and when no legal or judicial mechanism exists to handle such cases sensitively.

In the absence of such mechanisms, these cases are handled so crudely that the plight of the victims gets drowned in meaningless rhetoric and even more useless processes and procedures.

Television channels invite experts, including psychologists, to offer analysis after each such incident. The explanations these experts give usually range from the existence of the internet to the spread of a liberal and modernised culture. Generally, they also highlight the negative effects movies, television and co-education are having on young minds. The victim’s dress, sexual suppression in the society, hatred for strong women and the urge to control women in general — all are offered as possible explanations.

I really do not know if these factors explain anything.

Take, for instance, the argument that a lack of outlets for sexual gratification is an obvious reason for the prevalence of children’s sexual abuse. If that is the case, these crimes should not be found in the West, particularly the Scandinavian countries and the United States, which has a highly permissive culture in sexual matters. Yet children are being sexually abused in the West as well.

Others may argue that recourse to religion is the best solution as it teaches one to control sexual urges. Many students abused in madrasas and many children raped in catholic churches may disagree with this argument. There is voyeurism even at the shrines of Sufi saints.

In other words, it is not easy to control the sexual abuse of children though efforts must be made to curtail its incidence.

One effective starting point to manage and prevent it is home: a lot depends on how parents raise their children, teaching them how to respect others and why not to violate the privacy of others. Simultaneously, children can be taught to refuse being touched in a manner which makes them uneasy and uncomfortable.

Schools, obviously, are the next important place where children can be taught the same thing in a more formal environment. In a limited manner, media, too, can do the same thing.

Human rights activists protesting against child sexual abuse | White Star
Human rights activists protesting against child sexual abuse | White Star

Laws alone certainly do not offer a solution. In Pakistan’s case, they seem to be allowing a bad situation turn worse. Two laws help illustrate how.

Abduction of any under-14 child leading to his or her murder or rape is punishable with death under Section 364-A of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 376 of the same code provides for death penalty in the event of a minor’s rape. The problem with the two laws is clear: if the offence of sexual abuse is punishable by death, then an offender aware of the law is more than likely to kill the victim. Since punishment for both the crimes is same, the killing may help him remove the most potent witness and the most incriminating piece of evidence against him.

Consider the case of a 22-year-old woman who was recently gang raped by four people, including three policemen, in Rawalpindi when she was doing sehri in her car in the small hours. After raping her and recording it on their mobile phones, the culprits dumped her near a hostel she was living in. The woman was bold enough to report the crime and identify her rapists. This would not have been possible if she had been killed.

The lawmakers have obviously not pondered about the fact that making punishments more stringent for sexual offenses does not prevent such crimes but, on the contrary, endangers the lives of the victims.

In any case, stricter punishments – including hanging and beheading – are not the best deterrence as many may think. What to talk of Pakistan, sexual offences are widely prevalent even in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where the death sentence awarded to sexual offenders is carried out in public.

Opponents of the death penalty, additionally, argue that judicial systems and investigation and prosecution mechanisms run by the states are prone to making mistakes. But a death sentence once carried out is irreversible. This is true and, therefore, stringent checks should be introduced in the investigation and trial of cases involving the death penalty. It should be given in the rarest of the rare cases.

Of course, it does not mean that all punishments should be done away with since they do not deter crime. On the other hand, they should be seen more as a mechanism to provide justice rather than as a means to control and prevent crime.

Before we can start doing that, however, we must first recognise that our society has scant regard for the rule of law. In such a society, legal and judicial means alone cannot provide justice to children who suffer sexual abuse. In fact, some crimes committed against them go even unnoticed because the society is careless in its treatment of these victims. To give just one example, Section 376-A was inserted in 2016 in the Pakistan Penal Code to make it a punishable crime to print or publish the name “or any matter which may make known [the] identity” of the victims of sexual offences. Those who print and publish their names are liable to be punished with three years in prison and some fine. Yet, this law is violated every day by all of us, including the news media and the superior courts. Without paying any heed to it, we continue to name the victims with a collective impunity.

With respect for law being so low, how can a judicial and legal system work effectively to deter sexual crimes against children?

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court.

This article was published in the Herald's June 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.