Child sexual abuse in Pakistan

Break the silence: end child sexual abuse
Break the silence: end child sexual abuse (Wikimedia Commons)

In Pakistan, child sexual abuse is rampant, but it remains shrouded in secrecy. Both girls and boys are the victims of abuse, and few of the perpetrators are ever convicted. Guilt and shame are compounded by cultural issues, religion, poverty and ignorance. But slowly, Pakistanis are waking up to the extent of child sexual abuse in their country.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: July 1, 2001

The programme was awarded a silver medal at the New York Radio Festivals in 2002.


There’s no place that we’ve gone and people have denied that it exists. It’s the problem of all socio-economic classes.

5 years ago, the Swedish capital Stockholm hosted the first ever World Congress Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children. 1200 delegates representing more than 100 countries and 200 non-governmental organisations spent a week discussing how to combat the commercial exploitation of children, including the trafficking and sale of children, prostitution and child pornography. The Stockholm Congress put the issue on the international agenda, but children continue to be abused, as Eric Beauchemin reports from Pakistan.

Child sexual abuse suddenly made the headlines in Pakistan in late 1999 when Javed Iqbal turned himself into the police. A few months later, he was convicted of having killed over 100 children. It was the grizzly details of the case that awakened a nation, says Zehra Kamal of Aangan, an organisation working with abused children.

It was a case in which 100 children were raped or they were sodomised and then they were thrown into acid and then they were killed. And this is a person against whom reports were written to the police earlier also but no action was taken. This is a person they say is also a psychopath who must have done this. Well, these are extreme cases. And a lot of times people get scared of these extreme cases and that’s when they start acting, but little do they realise that this is one incident which has gone to such an extent, but there are so many other children who are suffering. And they might not get killed, but they are being abused. And they have to live with it throughout their lives. / My name is Mokas.

14-year-old Mokas used to work in a shop in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Young men who also worked in the shop often told Mokas to go out and rent pornographic videos. Even though he was only 11 at the time, Mokas was forced to watch these videos with them.

Usually, the boys who arranged for these movies were much older, and they would ask him and others like him to come over to their place, and let’s watch the movies together. EB: These older boys, when they were watching the movies with you, did they do anything? Did they touch you or the other boys? The boys would then start touching and hugging the other boys, and they would say really look at this scene, how enjoyable this is. Come on, let’s join in the fun. EB: Did these boys do anything more than just hug and touch you? They were doing all kinds of things, by taking off their shalwar – which is the trouser – and really pushing the boys into doing certain acts. They would touch his penis and force him to enjoy it and to go along with what they are doing.

The psychologist who’s counselled Mokas is convinced that he was forced to go much further than he actually admits. I interviewed several other boys at the centre run by SACH or Struggle for Change, a local group, but none was prepared to say as much as Mokas. The shame’s just too great, says the director, Khalida Salimi.

When it comes to sexual abuse, it is normal that they say that it’s not happening to us. We have heard of something had happened to one of our friends. It’s social and cultural reasons because it’s a taboo in our society. There is no acknowledgment, there is no acceptance, and they don’t consider the person who has abused, they don’t consider him or her victim. Rather they just isolate him or her. So it’s not accepted in the society.

But in some parts of Pakistan, child sexual abuse IS accepted. Actually it’s an integral part of the culture and traditions of two regions, in particular: the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province, as well as in some areas of Sind.

The Khans, kind of feudal lords of the area, they keep children with them for sexual purpose. It surfaced with these children are here because the parents are poor and they just leave their children to serve the Khan, to serve the feudal lord. But everybody know that they are keeping them for sexual purposes also.

A far more pernicious form of abuse is child prostitution. As in many other countries in the developing world, it’s on the rise in Pakistan, says Qindeel Shujaat of Sahil, another local organisation.

Child prostitution start from 8 to 15. The children who have been in demand. Normally these children are children who run away from their homes and come to these urban cities for earning money and this is the prime source of the income, and they have been earning like 18,000 per month. EB: 18,000, that’s over $300 a month. Like the average salary for the Pakistani people is something 2 to 3000 and they are getting 18,000. So that’s the business. Once they are involved in it and once they are getting the money, they don’t go back.

One of the areas where child prostitution is flourishing is in the Pirwadhai district in Rawalpindi. It’s a busy area with a big bus terminal, a vegetable market and many small, cheap hotels. Children who run away or who are SENT to the city by their parents often wind up here. Many quickly fall into the hands of pimps.

They have one single bedrooms or two bedrooms and then these children they have to go and search for the customers also. And whatever they earn, their employer or their hotel owner, they take the money, but they give them monthly. Sometimes they give them 2000 Rupees or equivalent to $40 and sometimes $50 a month. EB: Which is quite a bit of money here. Yeah, for poor families, it is. And unfortunately the children we are working with, they are the only bread-earners of their household.

Unlike in many other countries, young boys in Pakistan face almost the same risk as girls of being sexually abused. Last year, for example, 44% of Sahil’s cases involved boys. Nonetheless, says Zehra Kamal, there’s still a myth in Pakistan that girls are more vulnerable than boys.

It’s sometimes easier to access boys in certain areas because with the girls, especially in our society, they’re often kept protected and in the house. But for boys, we don’t take too much effort in protecting our boys because we think they are boys. So perhaps that’s making them more vulnerable to abuse.

Adult males who are looking for sex with children are fully aware of this, says Qindeel Shujaat.

In Pakistan people are so much connected, the houses are connected with each other. And people are monitoring what this guy is doing or what’s happening in that house. Even if his sexual preferences are girl, it will be very limited. He can’t bring the girl daily. And if he is going to bring the girl daily, the people of the street will take notice. The second thing is he can get the boys on much more cheap rates. For example, if we talk about the child prostitution a guy just charge Rupees 100, but if you need to take a girl, it will not be less than 1000 Rupees.

No one knows how many children are involved in prostitution in Pakistan. Experts believe they form but a small minority of the children who are being sexually abused. According to some organisations, over one in four Pakistani children suffers abuse, usually by a relative or someone else known to the child.

99% of the times, they are people the children know. Hardly there are cases of strangers. And people the children know will include servants, drivers, teachers. The ratio of cousins is very high. I can even share the reports that we have, the informal analyses we’ve done, they are mostly people children trust. They are not strangers. EB: What is the age range of the children who are being abused? They can range from children as young as six months old to children as old as 17 or 18 years. But the most common age has been found to be around 8 to 11 years because that’s the age where children are more vulnerable to abuse.

Aangan has been trying to create platforms where these children can talk about their experiences and feelings.

The News, which is the English daily, one of the most popular dailies of Pakistan, they have an Us magazine for children. It’s a magazine which comes out every week, and we have a page in that which is called Your Aangan. It also started after we wrote articles by the name of “Our bodies ourselves” some four years ago in this Us magazine and we got a tremendous response. Letters were pouring in about abuse. Unfortunately we have just made a breakthrough as far as child sexual abuse is concerned in the English newspapers, but in the Urdu newspapers we have talked about emotional health issues, about gender, about feelings and communication.

Sahil is also using the printed word to try to raise awareness. Last year, it published storybooks for children between the ages of 3 and 7 to make them realise that it’s sometimes OK to say no to adults. Sahil’s also trying to tell parents how they can report cases to the police.

We have just provided all the guidelines, the posters – and which our aim is to put this poster out in all the police stations of Pakistan. For example if a family comes to the police station and even the police official doesn’t help the guy and the victim’s family reads all those guidelines, they can themselves bring all kind of evidence. Unfortunately, for example, in the present system, the percentage of winning the cases has been always been very nominal because for example if they are not doing their medical check-ups, then definitely it’s difficult to prove that there was some kind of incident of sexual abuse.

Society’s reluctance to admit the problem hasn’t made the work of charities easier. SACH is trying to create greater acceptance among the people it’s working with by addressing the underlying cause: extreme poverty. It provides 2 hours of literacy classes per day to over 600 children, in an effort to break the cycle of poverty they find themselves in. The children who’ve been abused also receive counselling. Because many of these children are the bread-winners in the family, says Khalida Salimi, SACH also provides incentives to the parents to encourage them to send their children to classes.

We also have some programmes for parents, like income-generation activities and small credit schemes for parents. Parents are also happy we are at least giving them some incentive. If their children have to sacrifice their two hours of work and money, they are getting something and they are getting trainings. It’s micro-enterprise development training, self-growth workshops, this kind of trainings and at the end we give them credit. Then after the completion of first loan, we give them grant, grant of $100.

$100 dollars can make the world of difference in a district like this. Of course, even Khalida Salimi realises that small-scale projects will not significantly reduce the levels of abuse in Pakistan, but they have to start somewhere. At the same time, they also need to help the victims pick up the pieces of their lives.

There’s a lot of guilt. ‘Well it happened to me, but I think it was my fault because I was the one who was dressing up like this’, or ‘I was going to him or her myself’. ‘He was such a nice person, why me?’ I think it’s very important for them to talk to someone who gives them the right information, that it’s not their fault, that the child can come to terms with what happened and live with that. If any person faces some bad incident early in their lives, it should not affect his whole life. But unfortunately, when a female child has been sexually abused what our society say that she has lost her honour. In a male child, we gave some labels. And definitely that is going to affect his whole life, his career. So we don’t want the children should be any time victimised after some bad incident has been happen.

14-year-old Mokas knows he was quite lucky that no one discovered his secret.

Of course he has memories. He often thinks about such events, and he feels that still his biggest fear is what if someone had discovered us doing such things. And that that would have brought a bad name to the family, a bad repute to their own selves, and thank God that no one ever discovered him going to such places. EB: So you feel ashamed about this? Just he feels ashamed and he’s again saying thank God nobody has ever discovered or found out about this. And it’s good that my family respects me and think that I’m a good boy, and I have stopped going out with bad boys.

Abused children around the world express shame, guilt and anger. In Pakistan, the culture, religion, poverty and ignorance complicate matters even further. Slowly, Pakistanis are waking up to the extent of child sexual abuse in their country. So too is the government, says Khalida Salimi.

In the beginning, there was just in denial. I can recall the 1996 Stockholm congress and one of our ministers was there, and he was totally denying the fact. At least now the relevant department is not denying it. They’re accepting that this is an issue in Pakistan. 

This week’s Wide Angle was written and produced by Eric Beauchemin. Join us again next week for another edition of Wide Angle.