“I don’t regret speaking out, but since then, people have looked at me with strange eyes,” laments 16-year-old village boy Irfan. He was one of 20 children sexually abused by a gang who sold videos of the acts and used them for blackmail purposes, in a scandal that shocked Pakistan.
The police, who had conspicuously failed to act despite pleas from some parents, eventually arrested 37 men after clashes between relatives and authorities brought the issue into the media spotlight last summer, years after the abuse began. Six months after one of the country’s biggest pedophilia scandal broke, police now confirm 17 of the accused remain in prison awaiting trial, while three more are out on bail. But the young survivors who defied taboos to seek justice say they have little hope for rebuilding their lives.
In recent years, more and more families in Pakistan have dared to speak out against sexual abuse of their children. But the fight against predators remains in its infancy. Powerful taboos, gaps in legislation and a lack of awareness continue to fuel a phenomenon that remains hidden, yet deeply embedded within society.
Irfan drags his feet listlessly in the narrow winding streets of Hussain Khan Wala, a large village in rural Punjab. Like the other abused teens, he feels stigmatized and without any kind of support after five years of abuse. “I feel terrible when my friends stare at me. I know what they are thinking,” he mutters. “My classmates and teachers look down on me, so I stopped going to school.”
Though the scandal finally made it to the national news media in July, the local police were found to have turned a blind eye to the crimes for several months “which amounts not only to criminal negligence, rather it was connivance,” according to a report by the National Commission for Human Rights.
Several of the accused belong to locally influential families. It took a series of clashes between the survivors’ families and police, in which dozens were injured, for politicians to act and demand arrests.
The families and survivors were then served up to the media, with some local leaders placing the number of abused children at 280—though that figure is believed to have been inflated as a result of attempts to leverage the tragedy for business and political gain.
Authorities established that 20 youths were raped and sodomized, the only two sex crimes recognized under Pakistani law. The country’s penal code does not specifically prohibit sexual abuse that does not involve penetration, nor child pornography.
“This scandal shows there are no institutional structures to tackle sexual abuse or to protect children,” says Valerie Khan, the director of Group Development Pakistan, a local NGO that advocates legal reforms. A law criminalizing sexual abuse of children is currently being debated by the Senate.
These reforms are all the more urgent given the growing number of cases being reported, according to child rights’ group Sahil, which records statistics based on press reports in the absence of official data. The group recorded fewer than 2,000 cases in 2008, but more than 3,500 in 2014, a rise it said “reflects an increase in social awareness of the problem.”
Veteran human rights activist Hina Jilani said that while increased reporting was welcome, cases must be handled sensitively—noting that activists, judges and police were not trained in how to question child victims. Another obstacle to greater reporting of crimes is the families themselves, who are often reluctant to intervene when they feel their “honor” is at stake, according to Jilani.
Eighteen-year-old Sonia says it was unreported childhood abuse, and the subsequent loss of her ‘honor’ that drove her toward prostitution. Forced to abandon her studies to work following the death of her father at the age of 16, she found herself at the mercy of an employer who she says raped her.
“If I would tell my family, they would not go to the police station,” says the frail young woman, because of the shame it would bring. It was difficult for her to make her complaint herself because “there [are] no lady police” at the station, she said, and she quit her job fearing more attacks.
Having lost her sense of worth, she turned to an intermediary at a beauty salon who guided her toward prostitution, which she now uses to support her family.
Wearing light make-up and modern but modest clothing, she has all the airs of a carefree high-schooler—apart from the fact she walks the streets alone at night.
Back in Hussain Khan Wala, the parents of abused children are waiting for the government to help them rebuild their lives anew elsewhere. Muhammad, a laborer whose 17-year-old son was among those abused, said “[They] should be sent to Islamabad or abroad because they can not study here, you must remove them from the atmosphere.”