Lahore Hosts Child Abuse Conference. Critics Say It Was A PR Show

Lahore Hosts Child Abuse Conference. Critics Say It Was A PR Show
A conference on the topic of protection against child sexual abuse was held at Alhamra Arts Centre, Lahore on Sunday. It was organized by lawyer and Insaf Students Foundation (ISF) leader Hassaan Niazi. Speakers included former chief justice Lahore High Court (LHC) Mansoor Ali Shah among others.

The conference was an important event as it highlighted a critical issue that needs more public engagement and state action. Indeed, the presence of high level public officials made the event a success. Most cases of child abuse are either not reported and even when they are, lack of prosecution rarely results in conviction.

But the critics of the conference, especially on social media, were not impressed. The conference's media partner Newsweek Pakistan – whose editor landed himself in hot water last year for a series carelessly worded tweets – was called out by many on Twitter. Admittedly, the editor later clarified the intent of the tweets but Twitter outrage seems to have a longer life.

The content of the conference was insightful and some important points about the issue at hand were made by the speakers. Yet, the presence and endorsement of individuals accused of sexual harassment for was a little problematic. "This jeopardized the credibility of the event", said one attendee on the condition of anonymity.

"The presence of singer Ali Zafar was not a wise decision. Stardom aside, Zafar still has to clear himself of the charges levelled against him," added a prominent women rights activist.

Zafar was accused of sexual harassment by fellow singer Meesha Shafi last year. Shafi took to social media to make the accusations. Zafar denies these charges and has filed a court case. But many fans (and trolls) have been attacking Meesha since she made the allegations.

Thanking Ali Zafar for his support, organizer Hassaan Niazi tweeted that he would support Zafar no matter what other people say about him – in veiled reference to the harassment allegations levelled against the musician.

Talking to Naya Daur, Hassaan Niazi said Fasih Ahmad should be forgiven for his remarks because he himself has been a victim of child abuse and whatever he said was a result of the trauma he was going through at the time. “I engaged him because he wanted to come out of the trauma and contribute to something meaningful.” He further said that the conference could not have been possible without Newsweek’s support.

When asked about Ali Zafar’s support to the conference, Niazi said the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” should be applied to all cases, adding that Meesha Shafi failed to prove her allegations in the courts.

A lawyer who is among those handling Meesha’s case told ND on the condition of anonymity that the “innocent until proven guilty” argument is used by abusers in cases of sexual harassment because it is difficult for the victims to bring forth evidence. “The victims feel helpless because they are surrounded by people who try their best to protect the abuser and engage in victim-blaming.”

The lawyer further said that those who want to work on such important causes should be careful about not letting controversial individuals champion their causes.

The content of the conference and the insightful presentations given by the relevant stakeholders are indeed commendable. But it remains to be seen whether there will be follow up or not. If this remains one of those glitzy events with no results, then critics will be right that PR shows are no substitute for collective action by the citizenry.

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