Sexual exploitation of boys in Pakistan

Back in 1999, a serial killer confessed to raping and killing a hundred children in Lahore. In Kasur, in a pornography/sexual exploitation scandal which surfaced in 2015, around 280-300 boys were sexually abused, filmed and blackmailed. While the nature of both these media-highlighted cases revolved around young boys, we hardly focus on boys while talking about sexual exploitation and abuse in Pakistan. Our recent groundbreaking research report on “Sexual Exploitation of Boys” published by ECPAT International together with PAHCHAAN and Pakistan Pediatric Association explores the dynamics of sexual exploitation and abuse in boys along with gaps in the country’s current legal and support system. Based on the findings from a detailed survey from 63 social support workers who are on the frontline for supporting boys subjected to sexual exploitation and a detailed legal analysis, there are several factors which contribute to a high risk for boys to be sexually abused and exploited in Pakistan.
Boys enjoy a lot of freedom as compared to girls. While most of the restrictions related to movement and mobility in public and private spaces are put on girls, you would see young boys roaming around the streets or working at barber shops, local restaurants, factories and mines sometimes unsupervised. This lack of supervision and a blind eye to the day-to-day activities of boys contribute to vulnerability. We have rigidly defined gender norms, characterising males by attributes such as dominance, strength and the ability to protect themselves and others. These norms minimise the perception of risk for boys and how they can experience emotions and pain. It becomes hard for boys to understand and accept sexual abuse and exploitation and subsequently seek support or help.
Culturally, talking about sex and sexuality is an uncomfortable and a taboo topic. While there is little discussion on it generally, sexual abuse and exploitation is associated loss of respect and dignity. Even if the child does seek help, loops in legal framework and a very underdeveloped social support systems doesn’t recognise sexual abuse and exploitation of boys as a major child protection issues. Only very recently in 2020, commendable improvements were seen with an introduction of gender-neutral definitions of rape in the legal frameworks but despite amendments, there is a lack of any close-in-age exemption or criteria to determine whether consent between peers was voluntary, well-informed, and mutual. It is vital to identify and understand that sexual exploitation and abuse of boys is a major child protection issue in Pakistan. Although the dynamics of exploitation have evolved, entering into online sexual exploitation, there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the physical as well as online spaces to keep all children safe. There is a need to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of boys via awareness raising at various levels and build capacity building of front-line workers so we can normalise the vulnerability of boys and young men and normalise reaching out for support when in need, and other help-seeking behaviours, as a sign of strength.
In order to build an effective child protection system, it is important to first understand the trends and dynamics of the issue. There are critical gaps in knowledge and data which need to be addressed and research needs to look at various indigenous aspects including national and provincial dynamics and numbers, cultural sensitive norms, types of offenders and links between other child protection issues such as child labor. There is a need to work on a child protection system focusing on those who are at a higher risk due to their age, gender, disability or type of marginalisation. Critical gaps in national and provincial legislation and its implementation also need to be reviewed and addressed. While looking at sexual exploitation of boys, special attention needs to be paid to laws and legislative frameworks revolving around Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT), Child Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM), Online Child Sexual Exploitation (OCSE), extradition, national reporting and referral mechanisms along with international commitments. A multidisciplinary, multistakeholder approach needs to be taken so that we are not forgetting anybody during the process. Sexual exploitation and abuse is a serious issue in Pakistan. Although frequently highlighted in the media for more than three decades, the progress to keep children safe has been somewhat slow and a lot of work needs to be done on top priority.

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