Child Sexual Abuse Plagues Pakistan
On Sept. 17, 2019, Qari Muhammad Ramzan’s excruciating anxiety ended in devastation: he was informed that the body of his missing 8-year-old son, Muhammad Faizan, had been discovered a mere two miles from his home in Chunian, Kasur, Pakistan.
Faizan’s corpse lay on the same ground as the skulls of two other boys, aged 8 and 12. Authorities discovered the shirt of missing Ali Husnain, who was 9 years old at the time of his abduction. An autopsy would later reveal that Faizan had been raped before his killing.
These murders carry the insidious undertone of the rampant child abductions, rapes, and killings occurring in the poor industrial district of Kasur, inciting national outrage and horror. Outraged protesters surrounded the local police station in Chunian, criticizing police neglect as a factor of the grisly serial murders.
Sohail Habib Tajik, the police chief of Kasur, said in an interview that 27-year-old Sohail Shahzad had been arrested in connection with the four murders. His modus operandi would be to entice children by offering them money to gather firewood while driving his rickshaw.
Yet Shahzad’s arrest and confession did not address the recurring problem in Kasur.
Some critics blame the culture of impunity and pre-existing police inaction in finding the perpetrators. The city has become synonymous with child sexual abuse and has earned a macabre reputation, with parents becoming increasingly terrified to let their children leave the house. Many now bring their children to and from school for safety.
“We tie our remaining three children with a rope in the night, just to make sure that they don’t slip away from us,” said the father of Ali Husnain.
“Ali Husnain was my eldest son. He was very close to me,” Ali’s mother said. “Now, we are left with sorrow for the rest of our lives.”
In January 2018, the body of 7-year-old Zainab Amin was discovered in a garbage dump, after she had vanished while heading to a Koran class. The medical examiner noted “mud, fecal matter, and blood” on her body, strangulation marks on her neck, semen, and other “signs of sexual assault” including sodomy. DNA analysis suggested that the perpetrator may have been responsible for the murder of possibly 11 other children in the same two-mile radius within the year prior. Police arrested 24-year-old Imran Ali and sentenced him to death a month later.
The gruesome rape inflamed violent riots in Kasur, already in turmoil from the discovery of hundreds of video clips showing at least 200 children performing forced sex acts, each sold for less than 1 USD in the villages. Zainab’s death, which occurred in the context of the #MeToo movement, sparked an international outcry and a stream of public confessions from victims of sexual violence, reflecting a possible shift in national discourse. But the subject of sexual violence is highly controversial in socially conservative Pakistan, and survivors continue to face severe obstacles to voice their stories.
Actor Nadia Jamil revealed on Twitter that she was only 4 years old the first time she was sexually abused.
“People tell me not to talk to respect my family’s honor,” she said. “But is my family’s honor packed in my body?”
The legal system in Pakistan is designed to blame rape victims, who are often charged with adultery and subsequently imprisoned. They are also condemned by traditional tribal councils that intend to castigate women and girls as retribution for taboo dalliances or elopements.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has since intervened in the crisis, announcing the removal of the entire lineup of police officials in Kasur and ordering an internal investigation.
“There will be accountability for all,” Khan said.
Sarah Ahmad, chairwoman of the Punjab Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, stressed the need for resolute legislation to crack down on child abuse, given the stagnant number of child abuse reports locally and nationally. Police have been increasingly pressured to find and punish those responsible, but there is little to assuage the anxiety of traumatized parents.
“Child abuse cannot be stopped in days or months,” Ahmad said. “It will take years.”