Tuesday, March 20, 2018
By ZULFIQAR ALI
Ashfaq Ahmad would never have talked about sex with his three children, least of all his daughters, who are 5 and 3. In his socially conservative Pashtun community near the border with Afghanistan, the topic is taboo.
But Ahmad had grown worried for his children's safety, particularly after stories of killings and sexual abuse of minors began appearing almost nightly on Pakistani news channels. In January, the nation was transfixed by the case of a 6-year-old girl who was found raped and left for dead in a dumpster in a town in Punjab province.
Then Ahmad, a marketing manager, saw a video clip of Indian movie star Aamir Khan, who is popular in Pakistan, educating a group of children on a TV show about inappropriate touching. The years-old clip, which was making the rounds on Pakistani social media, persuaded Ahmad and his wife to sit down with each of their children, including their 8-year-old son.
"I told them if a stranger touches your body parts, you start crying and tell mama, papa or your grandfather too," Ahmad said.
A spate of child sexual abuse cases has torn apart Pakistani families and prompted a flood of anger at politicians and law enforcement officials for failing to curb a long-standing menace. It has also forced many Pakistanis to explore ways of broaching a topic that has long been thought too sensitive to discuss.
While sex education is not taught in public or private schools, education officials in the two largest provinces recently introduced chapters on child protection in government textbooks. But officials are skirting the issue of sex to avoid offending parents and religious groups. Textbooks in Sindh and Punjab provinces now include verses from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and sayings of the prophet Muhammad that refer to keeping children safe — without explicitly mentioning sexual abuse or body parts.
Allah Bakhsh Malik, the secretary of the provincial education department in Punjab, said the government had designed the classroom materials in collaboration with religious scholars, advocacy groups and UNICEF, for students in both primary and secondary schools. The state Curriculum and Textbook Board prepared free supplementary material to sensitize parents and teachers.
One passage, addressed to parents, reads: "Keep a vigilant eye on people in contact with children, including close relatives, as sometimes trustworthy people could inflict harm on them." Another, quoting Muhammad, says: "That person is not among us who does not show pity toward children and extend respect to elders."
Imran Taker, a child rights activist in Peshawar, praised Punjab for taking a positive step.
"I think it should be extended to other provinces too," Taker said. But resistance in more conservative places is fierce.
In the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which includes Peshawar, Education Minister Muhammad Atif said the provincial government has started to explore how to include such material in the curriculum for boys and girls ages 5 and up. "But the government will not include material in textbooks that is in conflict with our culture and tradition," Atif said.
Khwaja Yawar Naseer, director of a private elementary school in Peshawar, disagreed with teaching sex education.
"We organized a workshop for students and told them to start crying if anyone except their parents touched their sensitive parts of body," Naseer said. "But it is very risky to discuss sex education in classrooms. It is unacceptable in our society."
Fazal ur Rahim Marwat, a former head of the provincial textbook board in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said children needed more awareness of sexual abuse but argued that it should be taught in an indirect way, using moral education and enlisting parents and community leaders, not just teachers.
"We have a conservative society and such topics can't be discussed at the school level," he said.
The child protection advocacy group Sahil says that millions of Pakistani children are vulnerable to abuse, often from relatives and educators. In July, a principal was arrested on multiple counts of sexual offenses, including forcing female students to engage in sexual activity at school and capturing the acts on cellphones and hidden cameras. He is currently on trial.
In 2016, Sahil documented 4,139 cases of child sexual abuse nationwide — roughly 11 a day, and an increase of 10% from the year before. The group says that while media coverage of the problem has encouraged more victims to come forward, few cases result in convictions because of a lack of investigative capacity among police.
Mamtaz Gohar, a spokesman for Sahil, said the organization was providing free legal aid to 209 families of child abuse victims.
"This is an alarming situation," Gohar said. "Our office in Islamabad" — Pakistan's capital — "monitored 120 child abuse cases in the 15 days after the Zainab Ansari case."
He was referring to the 6-year-old girl in Punjab whose rape and killing sparked deadly riots in the city of Kasur, where 12 children were raped within one year. Investigators took DNA samples from dozens of people and faced intense pressure from government officials to find the culprit before arresting a 23-year-old religious singer, Imran Ali, who eventually confessed to killing Zainab and seven other children.
He was convicted by a court that normally hears terrorism cases and sentenced to death.
The weeks since Zainab's killing brought more cases. A 4-year-old girl was abused and killed in the town of Mardan, near Peshawar, her body recovered from a sugarcane field near her house. Police arrested three people, including a 15-year-old relative of the girl, on the basis of DNA evidence.
In early March, a man gunned down his three teenage nieces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after they reported to police that their father had raped one of them. Police arrested both men.
But Gohar said that despite the number of high-profile cases, most perpetrators of child abuse go unpunished.
"The conviction rate in child abuse is very low," Gohar said. "Most of the victims' families either avoid registering cases or settle out of court."
By Haroon Janjua
Eight-year-old Zarmeena is one of the country’s 1.5 million homeless children, many of them Afghan refugees, who miss out on education and often fall prey to violence and abuse.
On a cold winter morning, as the sun rises above the squalor and stench of the slums of the Islamabad, frail-looking children are already up, picking rags from the dumps. It is a risky and competitive business.
Zarmeena, an eight-year-old Afghan girl, wears ill-fitting wellington boots slashed down to ankle-length, with clothes that are no more than thin pieces of fabric wrapped around her.
“I come daily here to collect garbage for the scrap dealer who gives me money,” she says. “I have been doing this work for two years or maybe more.”
Zarmeena’s work as a rubbish scavenger pays her less than $1 (70p) a day. The number of street children in Pakistan is on the rise, according to a recent study, with an estimated 1.5 million under 18s sleeping rough in the country’s urban centres.
A report from the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), a thinktank working on the rights of children in Pakistan, states: “Street children are vulnerable to all kinds of hazards including: sexual abuse, street violence, psychological trauma, drug addiction, and falling victim to communicable diseases.”
Children like Zarmeena are homeless for many reasons: domestic violence, abuse, poverty, or because they were born to parents who could not afford to feed another young mouth.
Child rights activists have been calling on the government to establish rehabilitation centres with basic facilities to stop street children falling into the hands of the criminal gangs who increasingly prey on them. The government has responded by opening child protection offices in 12 districts but Rana Asif Habib, of the NGO Initiator Human Development Foundation, in the southern port city of Karachi, says the issue is linked to the Afghan refugee crisis and to Pakistan’s rising inflation rates.
“We are providing free education to street children, in mobile schools, but the problem with the Afghan children is that they don’t have their birth certificates and they are suffering a lot,” says Asif.
He believes that around half of all Pakistan’s street children are Afghan refugees. He also believes nearly 70% of them are runaways. The vulnerability of these children was gruesomely highlighted in December 1999 in Pakistan, when a serial killer, Javed Iqbal, was convicted of the murders of 100 children in Lahore. Iqbal sexually abused and murdered the children, before disposing of their bodies by dissolving them in acid. Child protection offices are being opened in 12 more districts to provide facilities for street children in their local areas.
Naveed Mukhtar, of the Child Protection Bureau, said: “Two vehicles are being used to get street children into protective custody. They are being provided with free education, accommodation and skills in order to make them responsible citizens.”
Unicef’s child protection chief for Pakistan, Sarah Coleman, says that collecting data posed “significant challenges”. She says Unicef has a focus on “the provision of technical support to federal and provincial governments for the generation of robust evidence” to show that child protection issues are improving. Pakistan has so far struggled to safeguard its children with an estimated 22 million not in education. Back on the dump in Islamabad, Zarmeena gets back to sifting through smelly piles of waste. “I have never been to school,” she says.
The party chairman – addressing a gathering at Kotli Sattian – said that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief is playing ‘politics of hypocrisy’.
“Look at the hypocrisy of Imran Khan. He used to criticize N-League on making metro project but now he is constructing metro himself” he said.
He went on to say that Khan has only abused others for the past five years.
“Khan stays silent on the corruption allegations against Pervez Khattak.
Bilawal also criticized former premier Nawaz Sharif in his speech.
“Senators joined hands and defeated you. Defeat will be your destiny in the next elections,” he added.
He claimed that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi wants to harm Pakistan International Airlines.
“This premier had acquired training in Ittefaq Foundry,” the PPP chairman said.