Zainab Ansari and Pakistan’s Stolen Children

FILE PHOTO: Members of Civil Society light candles and earthen lamps to condemn the rape and murder of 7-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur, during a candlelight vigil in Islamabad, Pakistan January 11, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo

December 1999: A man sent a letter to the Lahore Police confessing to the murder of a hundred children. Following an unsuccessful manhunt (the largest  in Pakistan’s history) the man surrendered himself at the offices of Pakistan’s best known newspaper. Between 1985 and 1999, Javed Iqbal Mughal had abducted, sodomized and murdered at least a hundred boys ranging in age from six to sixteen years.  His trial, controversial sentence, and death in his jail cell prior to execution were widely publicized. But we have forgotten, and moved on.

September 2014: “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame”, Mohammad Ali Naqvi and Jamie Doran’s nightmarish documentary about the widespread abuse of homeless boys in Northwest Pakistan was released on Britain’s Channel 4. The movie highlighted the traumatizing effects of child grooming and sexual abuse on the victims and created a temporary wave of shock, revulsion and calls for action. Alas, we have forgotten.

August 2015: Ashraf Javed, a journalist writing for english language newspaper “The Nation” broke news of a child pornography ring in Kasur, Punjab. An estimated 280-300 children were raped or otherwise molested by a gang which made videos of the abuse and sold them locally and internationally. This was possibly the largest media event in Pakistan’s history. And we have forgotten.

January 2018: The body of seven year old Zainab Ansari was found in a garbage dump a few days after she had disappeared. An autopsy showed injuries consistent with rape and strangulation. While social media traction brought this case widespread local and international attention, media reports indicate that this is the twelfth such case since January of last year.

Cutting to the chase, the most terrifying aspect of these events is this: that they could happen. What level of apathy must be reached for a hundred children to be killed in a city without a blip in the public radar? That it takes the murderer himself to rouse people to the fact that a serial killer  is at work? What collapse of societal protections has occurred for hundreds of children to be systematically raped and filmed over nine years-and for it to take an investigative journalist to raise the alarm? What unlamented death of the collective conscience has occurred for the widespread trafficking and rape of young boys to operate undisturbed since God knows when?

What makes matters worse is the level of journalistic and civic imprudence in the aftermath of these horrors. Addicted to blood, the media and public proceed to outdo each other in calling for all manner of physical violence and execution to be doled out to the guilty. The media does sensational interviews of killers and rapists, chastising and cursing them as if this will magically bring back the dead.

While the government introduced the first comprehensive set of child protection laws in 2015, it is obvious that children continue to be at peril and that the much touted law is not worth the paper it is written on. Furthermore, Twitter has provided Pakistani politicians with an all purpose forum to shed their crocodile tears and spew their token outbursts. these good-for-nothing con artists have not lifted a finger to protect Pakistan’s children. They have neither shame nor a conscience.

Even social media has proven to be a double-edged sword. While it often raises awareness where other forums have failed to do so, the momentum is often appropriated by many who want to direct the wave of public anger to their personal agendas and grievances. As an outcome, any serious push towards changing national mindsets and introducing common sense and evidence-based remedies is derailed.

This is what needs to happen if the children of Pakistan are to be protected from physical abuse, molestation and murder:

  • A nationwide campaign to educate parents about sexual abuse. This must include training and encouraging them to talk to their children about protective measures against abduction and molestation.
  • A nationwide campaign to educate the general public about sexual abuse and what to do when they suspect it. Teachers, healthcare providers and other professions dealing with children should be assigned mandatory reporters by law.
  • The introduction of curricula in schools focused on teaching children what constitutes inappropriate touch by family and strangers and what to do in threatening situations.
  • A nationwide campaign encouraging victims of abuse to seek legal and psychiatric help.
  • Instituting common sense measures in all schools such as requiring more than one staff member in class at any time and prohibiting teachers from being alone with students.
  • Making these same measures mandatory in Madressahs-and closing all Madressahs that refuse to abide by child protective regulations.
  • Educating law enforcement personnel about sexual abuse and training them in the investigation, forensics and prosecution of these cases.
  • Involving religious clergy in these initiatives and also mandating the presence of a family member when a child is being by a Qari at home.

Nothing short of building up child protection through such broad-based measures will achieve anything. None of our words or tears amount to anything unless we can translate them into something that saves children from having their lives and their innocence ripped away from them.

This article is a reprint and was originally published at Patheos.

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