Nearly two hundred young people, mostly young activists and students, were protesting for a minor rape victim who was found dead two days ago. They had placards saying “Justice for Zainab”, “Stop Sexual Molestation” and “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” in both Urdu and English, at the Liberty Market Roundabout, located in the middle of Lahore’s posh residential area and surrounded by busy high-ways. These young people chanted slogans like “Zainab’s rape is our rape” and “Zainab we are ashamed your murderers are still alive” in Urdu.
Two days ago, the body of a little girl was discovered in Kasur, a city an hour away from Lahore which is on the Gandasinghwalla India-Pakistan Border. The child, who was between the age of six and eight years, was abducted on January 4 and the FIR was registered the next day. All this while her parents were away in Saudi Arabia for an Umrah (religious trip). They returned around the same time Zainab’s body was discovered.
There was outrage. The social media exploded with the girl’s photos, her name, the details of her victimisation and even pictures of her body. A hashtag #JusticeforZainab was created. Soon well-known anchors, politicians and even celebrities like Mahira Khan tweeted on the incident.
The issue was picked up by Pakistan’s main opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Their social media team swiftly turned the table against their arch-rival Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), which is the ruling party in Punjab province as well the center.
Now, this isn’t the first time such a crime has been reported in the district of Kasur. In 2015, a case from the same area was deemed the worst sex abuse case in the country’s history. Nearly 300 minors, mostly boys, were reported to be sexually abused and their families were blackmailed by an extortion ring that sold their videos and photos.
The Punjab government underplayed this scandal, and the sitting law Minister Rana Sanaullah called these cases baseless. Yes, he said it is a land dispute not a sex abuse case. And yes, he is still in office.
As many as 700 similar cases have been reported since 2015 in the same district, partly because the government did not pursue that case as seriously as it should have.
In the last one year, this is the 12th such case reported in the two-kilometer radius of the city. Perhaps Kasur has an unusually high rate of sex crimes against children, which the government has failed to control. Since the Punjab government did not take much action or even acknowledge this as a problem, the opposition has picked up the issue at a time when the public is angry.
However, there is a problem with the narrative — particularly the one online. In 2015, there was a similar storm. The public was furious enough to cause a social media rage and protests everywhere but nothing translated into any policy change, legislative reform or even public’s awareness regarding child sexual abuse. Now dozens of such cases have been reported earlier, but this case has again caught the public attention.
There is an issue with disseminating such news too. High-profile journalists shared photos of the victim’s body with emotional messages, even if this meant sensationalising a severe crime that involves a child. A newsreader on a leading news channel appeared with her daughter in her lap with a heartfelt message. Again, a knee-jerk reaction that will be forgotten soon.
Newsrooms need guidelines on covering sex crimes, particularly those committed against children. There is a lot of emphasis on this idea of “saving our daughters” whereas boys are equally vulnerable to such predation.
Hopefully, now there will be some changes in legislation, and reporting such crimes, their investigation and medical check-ups will become more child-friendly. There will be some efforts to also prepare children to respond to such advances by adults, even those they know well.
Pakistan as a society needs to form a clear discourse against sex abuse and not create an uproar each time a case catches the public fancy. Ordinary parents are not aware of pedophilia and the risks their children face. There are no proactive news shows or awareness campaigns to help protect children, help them report or even understand sex abuse or knowledge about protecting themselves. Tragically, Zainab’s parents were away for performing Umrah in Makkah. Leaving a child behind with relatives isn’t uncommon in this culture, but this is a questionable habit when it comes to child protection.
There is another problem with the narrative around this case. Everyone is asking for justice and demanding a “hanging.” The news often lacks reasoning, logic and legal arguments. However, the idea that only an execution will stop this crime is problematic. Human rights activists often argue that state executions do not end crime and Pakistan ‘s corruption-riddled criminal justice system usually sentences only impoverished criminals to death who cannot afford proper defense attorneys. Public hangings and castration have no space in the modern legal system- and at least the mainstream media should point it out.
The public is so outraged that there is no room for any rational discourse. Television anchors are using religious analogies and personal examples to elucidate how horrible this case is – which is needless in this case at least. One can compare this case to the December 16 incident when a young student was gangraped and killed in a moving bus in Delhi. There was massive outrage against the then government. However, in Pakistan’s case, there has already been such an outrage before in 2015. There was an outpouring of shock and grief but little reforms for securing vulnerable children or helping them report sex abuse.
This case is ghastly but not uncommon in Pakistan. An organization called ‘Saahil’ that works for child rights reported 4,139 cases of sex abuse against children. This means the total number of reported cases per day is 11. Since yesterday, there have been riots in the town of Kasur. Roads between Lahore and Kasur are blocked. The main hospital in Kasur and a Member of the Provincial Assembly’s house there has been ransacked.
This is a serious challenge to law and order. Protesters and family members are frustrated by the police’s response. The government and police’s response were both criticized in 2015. The National Assembly passed the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2015, which amended the Pakistan Penal Code by criminalizing sexual assault of minors and not just rape. Child pornography was made illegal for the first time and became punishable, along with child trafficking within Pakistan.
The Chief Minister of Punjab and younger brother of Mian Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif has made a hasty trip to the victim’s house. He has also placed a prize of one million for anyone who helps find the rapist/murder(s). But is this political damage control or is he genuinely concerned about the safety of children now? Is this political frenzy led by the media or will it translate into a lasting social change in favour of children? Hopefully it will and Zainab’s unfortunate case will bring a lasting change in Pakistan’s legal system and society.