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Child Sexual Abuse: Without Addressing Root Causes, Remedial Action Is Bound To Fail

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Another day, another child raped and murdered in this country. Or murdered, and then raped, as was last week’s case in Sundar, Lahore. Heartrending as every such incident is, media coverage of these cases is rather erratic.

Some incidents take over the public consciousness through frenzied media attention while others go by largely unnoticed, relegated to a corner news item in the papers or a 1-minute TV report. This overt imbalance leads the more cynical to surmise that the attention any such case gets is reflective less of state and society’s genuine outrage at such a heinous crime and has more to do with the politics of ulterior motives. Among the general public, an oft-mouthed opinion on the increasing incidence of child sexual abuse is thecategorically apathetic “this thing has always been happening; it’s because of the media that we get to hear so much about it nowadays.”

Be that as it may, there is expert consensus that reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The malaise of child sexual abuse is much more widespread behind the veil of social niceties, ‘honour’ and ‘shame’  than anyone is willing to admit. The rational question to ask at this point, therefore, is what are state and society doing, or are willing to do, to safeguard our future which is very literally embodied by our children.

A ready answer to this from government circles would be the ZainebAlert, Response & Recovery Act, 2019, named after the 6-year old Zaineb Ansari whose abduction, rape and murder in Kasur inJanuary 2018 took the airwaves by storm and evoked a strong public reaction the likes of which we haven’t seen on any similar case since. However, as the name suggests and as a reading of the Act confirms, ZARRA is almost entirely about after-the-fact response to child abduction. It does not address the what and the why of the phenomenon of child sexual abuse nor makes provision for any interventions towards prevention, preemption and control. The same is largely true of Child Protection initiatives at the provincial level.

One must admit that there can be no ready panacea to phenomena as complex as child sexual abuse and the multifarious societal factors that act upon it. Extreme measures like the death penalty or chemical castration are of questionable efficacy and still do not address the root causes that enable rampant child sexual abuse. Therefore, a logical first step in the effort to arrest the spread of child sexual abuse is to attempt to identify, understand and deal with the aforesaid root causes. In this regard, the following policy interventions may prove effective:-

1. A centralized database of all child sexual abuse cases registered in police stations all across the country must be instituted, ideally under a federal agency such as the one proposed in ZARRA. This database must not just be a record of cases, but must include follow-up data on the timeline of every single case from registration to its conclusion. This data will give an idea of how many cases are settled out of court, through the payment of “blood-money”, “voluntary” forgiveness by victims’ families, intervention of influentials etc. This will help answer the following question: is there any certainty of punishment for crimes as severe as child rape/sexual abuse or does there exist a culture of impunity for those that are capable of exploiting it? Experts believe that certainty, more than severity, of punishment actually discourages crime.
2. The above-mentioned centralized database must include detailed profiles, personal & socioeconomic, of both the victim and the victimizer as well as a detailed account of the situation and the circumstances of the crime itself. This will not just enable vulnerability mapping, i.e. all thefactors that go into making predators and prey, it will facilitate further policymaking towards prevention and control.
3. On the basis of the centralized database, a national sex offenders’ registry must be maintained. Any person against whom a charge of rape or child sex abuse has been registered and who has not been expressly acquitted by a court of law must remain on that registry. Out of court settlement with the victims’ families must not be cause for removal from the registry. Society has a right to keep a record of its proven enemies.
4. It is a lasting colonial & tribal legacy that even acts as atrocious as rape and murder are tried by default as crimes against individuals/individual families in Pakistan and not as crimes against the state. Anachronistic laws defined by anachronistic morality allow victims and families to pardon the perpetrators, automatically bringing money and power equations into play. The purpose of a social contract, as enshrined in a democratic constitution, is entirely defeated when the state does not feel responsible for the life and safety of every one of its citizens, adult or minor. For a case to be tried seriously as a crime against the state in Pakistan, anti-terrorism clauses have to be invoked and the case moved to anti-terror courts, which mocks the entire judicial system of the country. It will require a paradigm shift but, in the interest of justice, the least that can be done is to try offences that qualify as crimes against humanity, such as child rape, as crimes against the state. This will eliminate the privatization of justice and will increase certainty of punishment, thereby increasing deterrents for would-be offenders. The caveat regarding the professional integrity of government lawyers, however, persists.

It goes without saying that the sexual victimization of children is as much a manifestation of the toxicity latent within a society as it is an individual crime. However, it is up to society to decide whether it wishes to act against the phenomenon in a holistic manner or just react to individual incidents.

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Naya Daur