Pakistanis protest rape and murder of 7-year old girl

b_179_129_16777215_00_https___ssl.c.photoshelter.com_img-get_I0000x6PxlC60Ivc_s_500_I0000x6PxlC60Ivc.jpegKASUR – In a conservative Muslim society where rampant sexual abuse has long been a taboo subject, the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl in the eastern Pakistani city of Kasur is fueling calls for change.

“Zainab’s death has opened the debate on child abuse to Pakistan’s public, in media and social media in a huge way,” said Nadia Jamil, an actress and philanthropist who is among a host of high-profile Pakistanis who have spoken up about child abuse since the first grader Zainab Ansari’s body was found in a garbage heap on January 5.
“It’s never been so transparent and so open before,” said Jamil. “It really has shaken the nation’s dormant empathy and conscience.”
Ansari’s went missing a day before her body was discovered while her parents were in Saudi Arabia. An autopsy report confirmed that Ansari was raped, sodomized and strangled to death.

“We had gone for pilgrimage to Mecca. While we were praying for the well-being of our children this incident happened,” said Zainab’s father Amin Ansari, a shopkeeper in Kasur. “My daughter never returned from her Quran class and the police didn’t help us find her.”

On Tuesday, Police arrested 24-year-old Mohammed Imran, who they said confessed to luring Ansari with food. He also allegedly confessed to killing at least seven other girls. Police on Thursday said he could have been involved in a child pornography ring.

But before those developments, anger over the authorities’ perceived inaction erupted into protests that resulted in two deaths after police shot into a crowd on January 10.

In recent weeks, the #JusticeForZainab campaign on social media has also taken off, a change.org petition to hang the suspected abusers has garnered almost 80,000 signatures and lawmakers have proposed public executions for those convicted of raping children younger than 14.

The unrest and activism reflects frustration over child abuse in Pakistan, especially in Kasur. The local press dubbed the city the “child abuse capital” of the country after the media obtained a video of 285 children being abused there. Authorities released the men implicated in the videos.

“Child pornography is readily available in CD shops in our city,” said local lawyer Mohmmad Waqas. “Videos from 2015 scandal are still in markets. The parents whose children were taped, they were silenced by the powerful people in the area. In such a situation where government shuts its eyes, crimes against children continue with impunity.”

Sahil, an NGO that has been fighting child sexual abuse since 1996, has tallied more than 720 incidents of child abuse in Kasur in the last three years. This year, they have recorded 12 reports of abuse in the neighborhood where Ansari’s body was recovered.

"These incidents are a result of not punishing those who were part of the larger incident reported in 2015,” said Samar Minallah Khan, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker based in Islamabad who has been outspoken on child abuse issues in Kasur. “So many families came out despite the shame that is attached to sexual abuse."

The government turns a blind eye to the abuse because of the money it generates, said Khan.

"In Kasur, child abuse is not just a social issue, there is money involved,” she said. “When the Pakistani government makes sure that no blasphemous content is put out, then how come we have acceptance for this kind of content being distributed openly? It's probably a big thriving business.” 

Pakistani society is deeply patriarchal. Men’s interests trump those of women and children, she added. Questioning the victim is routine here. Critics blame abused women and children for attracting predators. But the situation is changing, she added. 

"Because of the image of Zainab, people have started to realize that the child who experiences such forms of violence is a victim,” said Khan. “Due to this, so many people have broken the silence in shared and their own experiences."

Many outraged Pakistanis want schools to prepare children so they might avoid abuse.

"There are widespread calls for sex education in schools and awareness programs for children, parents, teachers etcetera,” said Rubina Saigol, an author and independent human rights activist in Lahore. “In the past sex education was berated as obscenity and a shameful idea. People were in denial. They used to say, ‘This doesn't happen in an Islamic society.’”

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said he and his colleagues would act on those suggestions.

“The government has taken a decision to amend the law on child protection,” he said. “We plan to change the curriculum for child protection and have made a request to the religious scholars to help in making positive changes in syllabus.” 

Zainab’s elder sister Laiba, 16, wanted more done.

“It is all blur now,” she said. “I only have memories and nothing else. My sister was so innocent, like all little children are. She didn’t deserve to be killed. I don’t know how to cope with this loss. Her killer should be stoned to death.”

A version of this story has been published in USA Today.
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