By Hajrah Mumtaz
January 29, 2018
A MAN alleged to have unleashed monstrous crimes against the person of young Zainab Amin is under police custody, and it is now for the law to take its course. For the rest of us this should be a time to take a long look at the realities that Zainab’s rape and death have brought to the fore.
Many would have noticed that for several weeks now, newspapers have been carrying a drastically increased number of reports about cases of child abuse (sexual or otherwise)/ rape and/or murder in different parts of the country. Is this because the incidence of these grievous crimes has suddenly gone up, or that of reporting them and on them has? The latter is far more likely.
The Kasur case jolted our otherwise moribund consciences. More importantly, the countrywide outrage and the resultant hectic efforts made by law enforcement will hopefully have given other families the strength to approach the justice system. Some years ago, this pattern emerged in ‘honour’ crimes as well; it was not that the incidence of the killings had increased, but that they started being reported more as a result of changes in the law, greater awareness of this, and a societal debate about the heinousness of what earlier used to be passed off as ‘tradition’.
The focus on ‘honour’ crimes has led to fairly steady changes in the law. The focus on the Kasur case now should also be taken as a watershed opportunity to bring about urgently needed changes — in the law, in societal awareness, and in people’s education — to protect children. Children face all sorts of abuse, especially sexual but also physical in the shape of beatings etc (witness the case just recently of the eight-year-old boy beaten to death by his teacher in Karachi).
Some changes in the law to address this have been achieved through child protection laws and others are being proposed. A glaring gap, however, is making children and their families — i.e. society at large — themselves aware of the risks, of concepts of what is appropriate, dangerous, or not.
Thus amongst the parents of children in a few schools at least in Karachi, a petition is circulating lobbying for the inclusion in the curriculum of a child personal safety programme, including components that in particular make children aware of age-suitable concepts of sexual harassment and abuse. This is an eminently sensible idea, an essential part of school curricula in many developed parts of the word; it is an idea for which, in Pakistan, the time should be considered to have come.
The contours of such a programme could be envisioned as similar to a subject such as civics — if it is possible and appropriate to teach children to be good citizens, taking up personal safety should also be valid. There is no need to go into a debate by bringing in the three-letter word that remains taboo even now in this country of a rapidly multiplying population. However, awareness of personal safety is an undeniable need.
Specifics of such a component would include concepts of privacy and personal space, and touch and/or communication that fall on either side of the appropriate/inappropriate line (including which adult has some right to cross a very problematically blurred line, such as when a young child needs help in the bathroom). What ought also be addressed is basic lessons that must be internalised in every child: don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept offers for edibles, and — given that much child abuse (especially sexual) comes from known adults including family — to whom to immediately report a situation that makes the child uncomfortable. There are several local NGOs and INGOs working on child safety issues. Their input could be incorporated.
Beyond such an intervention in educational institutions, society itself must be vigilant of its changing demographics. Few places are left where the old Mohalla-village system of trust and concern still hold, where neighbours all knew each other and where there were unbreakable bonds of community wellbeing.
This is a rapidly urbanising country, and one that has in recent years seen huge levels of internal migration and displacement. As such, in especially the urban areas (at all economic tiers), most localities have a mix of residents, transient residents and passers-by, few of whom need have any reason to trust at random. There needs to be an understanding, therefore, that sending a child to the shop around the corner is not without risk, and neither is playing unsupervised in the lane — both once common practices cutting across all income groups in Pakistan.