An eight-year-old girl from the Muslim nomadic Bakarwal community was sedated, tortured, gangraped and held captive in a local Hindu temple before being murdered in January. Her body was found in a forest near Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir. Nearly three months after the horrific assault and murder, India and along with it, the world, has woken up to this news.
And so the question is: How are the vicious wars on children being carried out in South Asia?
While the Kathua gangrape has gained momentum in India’s national media and created some discomfort in Indian politics, there are countless other children who are targeted and abused brutally every single minute in South Asia; none of these are isolated instances.
The scale of sexual violence and sexual aggression against children in South Asia is comparable to the scale of sexual violence in protracted armed conflicts. Recent hashtag campaigns have marked South Asia as one of the world’s most unsafe regions where violent crimes against children occur on the war-peace continuum. We have witnessed calls for justice in the form of social media campaigns as reminders that children’s bodies have become the battlefield on which communal and familial wars play out.
In India, the BJP’s current political ascendancy coincided with one of the worst rapes and murders of two teenage Dalit girls in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh on May 27, 2014. At that time the BJP was quick to blame the state government led by the Samajwadi Party. Recent Unnao and Kathua cases have occurred in states governed by the BJP and its allies.
Meanwhile, the cacophonous politicking around the heinous Kathua rape and murder has drowned the calls for justice for a 6-year-old girl rape survivor in a critical condition in Rohtas district of Bihar. The rape and brutal murder of a teenager of an intermediate college in Jharkhand was also reported this week. The mainstream English media hardly captures the extent to which violence against women and children occurs in different parts of the country, away from the big cities.
In Pakistan, widespread outrage resulted after the rape of an eight-year-old girl from Chichawatni, early this week. She was burnt alive after the sexual assault and died at a hospital in Lahore. This incident was similar to the case of the six-year-old who was held in captivity, tortured, raped and murdered in Kasur on January 4. She was the 13th child victim in recent times in the region which has a nefarious past. Kasur is the same area in Pakistan’s Punjab where a massive child abuse scandal was discovered in 2015, in which it was estimated that almost 300 children, most of them male, were victims of systematic sexual abuse.
Cries for justice for this child had barely died down when a four-year-old was raped and strangled to death in Mardan city of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province on January 14. Pakistan continues to report high incidents of violence, sexual abuse and murders of children.
‘The Dhaka Tribune’ recently reported a research carried out by the Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, where it was found that in the last three months, 176 children were raped, 109 killed, and 25 murdered following rape. Activists in Bangladesh have been alarmed by rising cases of abuse and violence against children in an environment of impunity and delayed legal processes to seek justice.
One of the worst cases of gang rapes occurred in Nepal recently, when a 15-year-old mentally disabled girl was held captive for 10 days and gangraped by 5 men. The 2015 International Women’s Day, on March 8, became a day of mourning when a six-year-old child died after two weeks of intensive care at Kathmandu’s Kanti Children’s Hospital, following a gruesome rape.
What do these patterns across South Asia tell us?
We recognize a deeply troubling pattern of sexual violence against children in all the South Asian states. A 2016 UNICEF report states that over half of the world’s children experience severe violence of whom 64 per cent are in South Asia. The dynamics of child sexual violence is different from sexual violence against adults. Sexual harassment, abuse, trafficking, child pornography, prostitution across entertainment industries indicate the extreme vulnerabilities and protection risks for children and gross violation of their rights. There are also customary forms of sexual violence that are often acceptable and occur in settings of child/early marriage, and practices such as ghetu putro (pleasure boys) in Bangladesh and bacha bazi (sexual relationship between older men and young men and boys) in Afghanistan.
Children experience enormous sexual abuse within their families and private spaces. Moreover, poverty in South Asia exposes many children, particularly street children to sexual violence; it forces children into occupations and high-risk environments where they become extremely vulnerable. Alarmingly, brutal gang rapes are becoming a regular feature of sexual violence against children in South Asia. There are similarities of how these gang rapes are carried out by aggressive men in buses, orphanages, places of worship, hospitals and schools. A nagging question is how children remain invisible in such public spaces. Why is there a lack of understanding of protection risks of children in such environments?
Highly patriarchal macho South Asian cultures perceive children as acceptable and easy targets of such violence. They are targeted to settle scores in land disputes, communal/ethnic violence and large-scale political violence.
Sexual violence against children have been used to forcibly displace families and their communities. Land grabbing and forced displacement have been carried out through strategies of sexual violence against Tamil and Muslim children in Sri Lanka, Rohingya children in Myanmar and Hindu and adibashi children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh.
Children’s bodies are ‘feminised’ the same way as women’s bodies are. Bodies become frontlines where men fight their wars, where men bond through gang rapes and through which men communicate the messages of hatred towards other communities. Children’s bodies become the frontline of identity wars. The culture of impunity that protects the powerful combined with a poor understanding of legal frameworks mean these criminal acts are rarely punished, or not harshly enough.
Where do we go from here?
Merely narrating and contextualizing these harrowing cases of sexual violence against children in the region has been a devastating experience for us. Fact is that no community comes out looking better than the others, no state in the region, a beacon of hope and no civil society above parochial interests.
To make it worse, “whataboutery” during these times has become part of the social media trolling and the divisive public discourse seeped in self-serving identity politics by all sides. It is emotionally draining and almost impossible to keep track of the daily attacks on women and children which occurs with such impunity both in conflict areas and in the relatively peaceful urban and rural spaces of South Asia.
Feminist and activist networks are also divided and have all been seduced by the identity wars around us. In such a vicious political and social climate, is it possible to put aside our differences and reclaim our moral compass? Can we rediscover our collective conscience in our desire for truth and justice which could unite us all? Can we reach out to allies across the territorial, political and cultural divide and reclaim our humanity in the justice we seek for all children who have been violated. We hope it is possible.