It is a crime of unspeakable proportions. The rape and murder of seven-year-old Zainab in Kasur has united the people of Pakistan in grief and anger, sparking protests across the country. As is usually the case in such instances, the government has followed a well-worn script; the police has promised to leave no stone unturned in its attempts to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime, the Chief Minister of Punjab has convened an Inquiry Committee to investigate what happened, various courts have instructed the government to ensure that justice is done, and even the military high command has demanded that stern action be taken. At the same time, the crime has also provided yet another opportunity for crass politicking; never one to let a good crisis go to waste, Tahir-ul-Qadri has attempted to link this crime (and the subsequent killing of two unarmed protestors by the police) to the deaths of activists from his party during the Model Town Incident of 2014, while the PTI has lost no time in blaming the government for what happened, arguing that crimes of this sort could never take place in KPK. Amidst all of this, various different elements of society have also weighed in on what happened and what should be done, ranging from those demanding public executions to those (wrongly and callously) blaming Zainab’s parents for her fate.

That emotions are running high is completely understandable. Unfortunately, if experience tells us anything, it is that incidents such as this are quickly forgotten once the initial anger and passion subside. Even when those responsible for crimes such as this are found and punished (an admittedly rare occurrence), there is little evidence of any broader reflection on the reasons why such crimes happen in the first place, what could plausibly be done to prevent them and, if nothing else, mitigate their impact.

A good place to start would be to recognize how Pakistan is not a country that has ever given much through to the protection and welfare of its children. Corporal punishment, often taken to sadistic extremes, is rampant in homes and schools across the country, child labour (domestic and otherwise) is viewed as being entirely normal, and sexual abuse is far more common than many are willing to acknowledge or admit. Violence against children, in both its direct and more structural forms, is largely normalized and, more damningly, usually ignored. After all, it was in Gujranwala in 2014 that 2-year-old Kainat and 7 year old Hira were burnt to death by an angry mob that had attacked their family for being Ahmadis. In 1995, 12-year-old Iqbal Masih was assassinated in Muridke because of his activism on behalf of indentured brick kiln workers. Just last year, 11-year-old Saima was recovered from a house in Islamabad where she had been working as a maid, and where she had been brutally tortured by her ‘respectable’ white-collar employers. She was lucky to survive; in 2014, 10-year-old Iram was beaten to death by her employers in Lahore, while 12-year-old Shazia Masih was found tortured to death in her employer’s Lahore home in 2010. In yet another incident of violence against children, 13-year-old Muhammad Ahmed was left mute and paralyzed after being beaten by teachers at his school in Larkana in 2016.

In a more sensitive and civilized part of the world, these horrific incidents would have prompted some soul-searching and concrete measures to prevent them from occurring again. In the Land of the Pure, virtually all of those accused of the crimes listed above were either not found, have been acquitted after problematic court proceedings, or not prosecuted at all for want of evidence. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2014 report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, there were 70,000 recorded incidents of violence against children in Pakistan, a significant percentage of which included sexual assault. As the report itself acknowledges, the actual number of cases is probably much higher, with most simply going unreported. Yet, despite all of this, no meaningful steps have been taken to address the situation.

At a very basic level, the problem is three-fold. When it comes to violence against children, particularly when it is of a sexual nature, self-destructive social taboos and notions of honour often prevent victims and families from reporting crimes to the authorities. This is coupled with the general reluctance parents have when it comes talking to their children about sex and appropriate physical contact with friends, strangers, and members of their own families (as the vast majority of abuse cases involve family members or people otherwise known to the victims), which is in itself borne of misguided ‘religious’ notions of propriety and morality. When it comes to Pakistan’s children, one of the most damaging things done by zealots on the religious right is the propagation of the idea that sex education leads to immorality, with even more damage being done by the patriarchal notion (helpfully reinforced by dangerous legislation like the Hudood Laws) that the victims of sexual crimes are either to be blamed for what happens to them or, alternatively, encouraged to remain silent for fear of brining ‘shame’ to their families.

Finally, it is also evident that there is a lack of political will to do anything about crimes against children. While the motivations of Tahir-ul-Qadri and the PTI are suspect, the fundamental point they are making is not a bad one; the PML-N government in Punjab is the very same that was in power when the Kasur Child Abuse Scandal of 2015 rocked the country, in which hundreds of children were allegedly abused by a ring of pedophiles who then used videos of the abuse to keep the families of the victims from approaching the authorities. Two years on, nothing has been done to bring the perpetrators to justice; nearly all of the accused have been acquitted (amidst reports of witness intimidation and backroom political deal-making) and the scandal has quietly been swept under the carpet. Perhaps not coincidentally, reports at the time suggested that members of the ruling party where themselves party to the abuse. Similarly, watching Rana Sanaullah on television this past week has been extremely revealing; rather than expressing any remorse or taking any responsibility for what happened, Punjab’s supposed Law Minister has been busy attacking anyone who questions his government’s record in office, suggesting that the anger generated by Zainab’s murder has been stoked for political reasons. When asked if he could name any of the other children allegedly targeted by Zainab’s killer, Sanaullah callously dismissed the question by saying he could not be expected to know the name of every dead child.

The government’s obvious indifference and lack of interest in protecting Pakistan’s children can only be contrasted with the work of Task Force Argos, a branch of the Queensland Police in Australia. Through years of painstaking work and tireless labour, the men and women of this taskforce finally managed to bring down one of the internet’s largest child pornography forums, identifying hundreds of pedophilies and child pornographers around the world who were subsequently arrested. One of the most notable aspects of this case was that, for the most, Task Force Argos was working to protect children who were not even in Australia, and who were being targeted and exploited in South East Asia and other parts of the world. Closer to home, for all the chest-thumping about morals and values, what can really be said about a society that cannot bring itself to lift a finger in defence of its most defenceless members. Zainab is not the first little girl to be failed by Pakistan and she will not, unfortunately, be the last.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.