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Category Archives: Human Rights

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful commited citizens can change the world – indeed it is the only thing that ever does” -Margaret Meade

Childhood Interrupted – Child Marriage in Pakistan

Published: June 14, 2017
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While there is an increased awareness about the concept of child marriage, much needs to be done at grass-root level. PHOTO COURTESY: Haseeb Siddiqui

While there is an increased awareness about the concept of child marriage, much needs to be done at grass-root level. PHOTO COURTESY: Haseeb Siddiqui

KARACHI: When Safiya was married off to a man, some 20 years older than her, she was barely 13. Her body frame was slim. She was still gaining height and had no idea about the physical demands of a marriage or motherhood. Within just three months, this resident of an underprivileged part of Karachi was expecting.

“My brother was married to my husband’s sister. It was a watta satta (exchange marriage). They waited only until the day I started menstruating after which I was married off,” said Safiya.

The birth of her first child, born premature, was an ordeal for Safiya. She received several pints of blood for transfusion as she was anaemic and she barely survived. Today, Safiya is a 16-year-old mother of two. She laughs when anyone asks whether she even prepared for the marriage and for the responsibilities of parenting.

“Does it matter now whether I was prepared for it or not? Girls have to do what they are told to do. In our social strata, this is just how it is. We are like cattle. We are born, married off to bear a child and eventually one day, we die.”

In Pakistan, according to lawyer and gender activist Maliha Zia Lari, the legal marriageable age for girls and boys in Sindh is 18, while it is 18 for boys and 16 for girls in the rest of the country.

“A marriage with a female child under the age of 16 is punishable under Section-498B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. In Sindh, punishments extend to girls aged 17 under Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act,” she continued while shedding light on the legal aspects around child marriage in Pakistan.

Pakistan has recently outlawed child marriage and toughened penalties for those guilty of the crime in an effort to crack down on the practice estimated to affect one in five girls in the country. A minimum five years in prison that may go up to 10 years is the punishment, in addition to a fine of up to Rs1 million. A legislation passed by the National Assembly (NA) in February 2017, also bans forced marriage involving women from minority groups.

For a second time, the NA’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs in the following month unanimously rejected a draft ‘Child Marriage Restraint Act’ aimed at increasing the minimum legal age for marriage of a girl to 18 years from 16.

Despite the laws and surging criticism, child marriage victims like Safiya continue to endure a cycle of lifelong disadvantages and miseries.

NA panel refuses to raise minimum marriage age for girls

Pakistan is also a member of the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), an inter-governmental body which has adopted a regional action plan to target child marriage. Yet, at the grass-root level, social attitudes remain static.

According to a Unicef report, State of the World’s Children 2016, at least 21 per cent Pakistani girls are married off before they turn 18. Now, this number on the ground is, of course, higher since a significant part of the populace in Pakistan remains unregistered. Therefore, they also do not show up in surveys. Almost 60 million children in Pakistan are not registered at birth – approximately 65 per cent of children in the country – according to Unicef.

Regrettably, the ramifications of underage marriages are also both physical and psychological.

Dr Azra Ahsan, a gynaecologist and consultant at the National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health, disagrees with the argument that a girl attains physical maturity at 18.

“All the organs of a woman including the genital tract continue to grow and mature until she is 18. The emotional maturity, however, comes much later. To me, a girl at 18 is still a child,” she stressed and added that marrying a girl at a tender age and then lumbering her with pregnancies and children is taxing her capabilities to the limits.

“Sexual relationship, pregnancy and childbirth are catastrophic for young girls. For them, a sexual relationship becomes a nightmare. Going through a pregnancy is a test of endurance even for grown-up women and one can only imagine what a burden it should be for a child girl,” said Dr Ahsan.

She maintained that when a fully grown baby tries to negotiate its way out through a small immature pelvis of a young mother, it becomes a harrowing experience for that child.

Man accused of child marriage sent into police custody for five days

“This not only results in a horrible agonising pain but can also cause pressure ischemic injuries to her genital tract and the adjoining organs. As a result, holes known as Obstetric Fistula appear between the genital tract and the urinary tract and/or the bowels. She then dribbles urine or stool constantly. The lives of young child mothers are literally nipped in the bud.”

For Samar Minallah Khan, an inspirational documentary filmmaker, a girl is forced to grow overnight into a child marriage.

“Child brides are at a risk of physical and emotional violence, and pregnancy-related complications. Depriving a child of education means perpetuating a cycle of poverty, violence and inequality. The very concept of a girl child as ‘someone else’s property’ prevents parents from investing in her future,” she said.

In Minallah’s experience, child marriages are mostly practised in the garb of culture and traditions. Once a girl child is betrothed, she becomes a property of the family that she is supposed to wed into. “There is no concept of documenting such [child] marriages. There are legal lacunas to determining the age of the child.”

Minallah’s documentaries mainly focus on culturally sanctioned forms of child marriages including ‘pait likhi’, ‘swara’, ‘vani’, ‘sang chatti’, ‘irjaai’, ‘addo baddo’ and ‘watta satta’.

“Not many urban Pakistanis know about the forms of child marriages and which is why more in-depth understanding and research needs to be carried out,” she explained. Minallah underlined that during January 2016 to May 2017; only over 35 cases of swara, vani and sang chatti were reported in the media.

Gender activist Lari wants Pakistanis to start talking more and that too openly about the impacts of child marriages in the society. “We need to emphasise that child marriages are void and not a real nikah. We need to provide economic incentives at community levels for families insisting them not to marry off their girls at a young age.”

Too young to marry: Police thwart child marriage in Khanewal

“Any action taken must be consistent, state-owned and sustainable,” she added while suggesting campaigns at schools and strategic intervention points for adults.

While there is an increased awareness about the concept of child marriage, few voices have also started making a lot of noise against it in Pakistan.

Designer Waqar J Khan and his team started one such campaign that made waves earlier this year with the hashtags #fashionforacause and #againstchildmarriages. The fashion shoot showed three girls dressed as child brides, juxtaposed alongside their photos in sportswear ready to take on the world.

“The purpose of the shoot is to build awareness about child marriage, and promote women in public spaces, especially the sports field,” said Khan.

Younger girls mean long birthing life, which is considered important in our culture. Lari feels that it is still a taboo to talk about women’s sexual and reproductive issues and the hush around the subject means that people do not actually see the human impact.

“The custom [child marriage] is linked to patriarchy, power and control. We hear statements like, older girls get too set on their ways as compared to the younger girls since the younger they are, the more adaptable she is.”

According to the gender activist, women in Pakistan witness several examples around them – their grandmothers and aunts – who were child brides and mothers and so they also think, if they were fine, what is the problem?

“There is a reluctance to see a girl as a child. She is seen as a woman as soon as she reaches puberty and thus must be married off before her sexuality becomes out of control”, complained Lari.

While there in a rising need to bring a change in the overall Pakistani mindset, Minallah thinks that stringent legislation, complemented by strong implementation was also required. Most importantly, supporting girls’ education is one of the single best investments a country can make to help poverty and prevent early marriages, she added.

“A girl who has completed her education is less likely to experience violence after marriage and have children when she herself is a child. Above all, she is more likely to be conscious and healthy,” Minallah concluded.

Preventing child marriage has a significant bearing on women’s education in the country. Therefore, it is important that the state must challenge unfair social norms strengthening child marriage by using legal and advocacy campaigning tools.

 

With additional input by Ali Rahman.

Udaari reveals Pakistan’s best kept secrets

Published: September 29, 2016
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PHOTO: Draamaz

PHOTO: Draamaz

“Watch Udaari; it is unlike any other drama,” I had said, trying to convince a friend to watch the drama. “No way! Children being abused. Don’t want to even think about it,” was the immediate response.

Brushing issues under the carpet is what we do best. A study titled ‘The state of Pakistan’s children 2015’ by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) states 10 cases of child sexual abuse took place every day in 2015, bringing the total to 3,768 cases last year. These are registered cases. Any educated and realistic guess will tell us that to get the real number it would have to be multiplied manifold. Of these, a lot of abuse cases are incestuous. Communal living may have many advantages as a support system but also exposes unassuming children, and even grown-ups, to the dangers of sexual abuse and rape.

Mann Mayal has ended and Twitter can’t handle it

What Udaari has done is remarkable. It was not because Ahsan Khan played out a difficult character with unexpected brilliance, and that Samia Mumtaz played Sajju so convincingly that everyone who saw the drama wanted to bring her and Zebo home and protect them. It was a brilliant play, well scripted and directed, and technically could have been more nuanced and the characters more layered, but this is not a review of Udaari. This is a look in the mirror. And Udaari became that mirror.

As a journalist who has worked on gender rights and sexual and reproductive health issues, I have met victims of rape of all kinds, including victims of marital rape and sex workers who were raped. Rape is never a laughing matter. Whenever someone cracks a joke about rape, I think of the times when these jokes may not have bothered me because I had not met the butts of those jokes and heard their stories in person. I had not seen the scars, both physical and non-physical, that acts of cowardice and weakness such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape leave behind. Watching Udaari made me think of some unfortunate souls, victims and others survivors.

When those children in Kasur, who were sexually abused by the gang who made a living out of selling videos of the acts and blackmailed them, saw Udaari with their families, what must it be like for them? What was the reaction of viewers who saw Udaari in groups or in isolation in Pakistan’s many homes where traders of the flesh reside? The woman in Tharparkar who was gang-raped some two years ago, and got justice after I wrote her story that prompted a suo moto action by the chief justice – what was she thinking when she saw Udaari? The play hit home with the audiences. But it must have been an unforgettable watch for those who have directly or indirectly been exposed to such despicable acts.

Udaari cast shares final thoughts as fans await finale

In 1980 an Indian film, Insaf ka Tarazu, starring Zeenat Aman was initially met with negative responses for being too bold. Rape was something that was not meant to be depicted so openly. It opened certain shut doors. Udaari has managed a much bolder theme more than two decades later in Pakistan, deftly and without relying on the objectification of women as sex objects. It has succeeded in making sure that the take-home message remains that one who has been raped need not be a victim but also be a survivor, instead of the focus being on Zebo’s youth or beauty. This is no mean feat.

But perhaps the biggest contribution of any article, news clipping or talk show, or any drama like Udaari is daring to make taboo and hushed up topics like child sexual abuse open to discussion on a dinner table, at work place and on social media. Let us stop pretending that these evils don’t exist in our society, and that too closer to us than we think. Recognising an issue is the first step to solving it.

Intolerance or Awareness? Thousands of Pakistani women opting for Khula

Khula: A woman’s right to divorce with dignity

Published: April 1, 2016
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PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS

“There is more to life than just a man,” says Sajida*, explaining her decision to file for Khula. A working woman in her 30s, she is one of the thousands of women from Karachi who opt for it every year. “For my mother and women from earlier generations in my family, even thinking of Khula as an option was impossible.”

Khula is prerogative of husband, not courts, says CII

Where Khula – the right of a woman to seek divorce – is concerned, Pakistani women, today, are on the brink of a major social change. The numbers of women opting for it is growing at an unprecedented rate in Pakistan’s urban centres and data retrieved from family courts confirms this.  Within the first 10 days of 2016, 36 applications for Khula were filed in Karachi alone. On December 31, 2015, 12,733 cases of Khula were still pending in family courts of four districts in Karachi – South, East, West and Centre districts. In recent years, Malir seems to have the highest number of registered Khula cases among all localities of Karachi. On December 31, 2015, there were 700 filed cases in Malir. Within 45 days, another 200 were added bringing the average to about five new cases a day in this area alone. “If 10 cases are resolved or disposed, 50 new ones are added. The numbers keep growing,” says Urdu journalist Arshad Baig, who has spent years reporting court stories in Karachi.

The Council of Islamic Ideology’s recent declaration that it is un-Islamic for courts to use Khula without the consent of a husband to dissolve a marriage triggered heated debate on the subject. Yet, with Pakistan’s family law allowing it, women are now more ready to use this right when a marriage gets too much to bear.

According to Pakistan’s family law, in the law of Islamic jurisprudence, Khula remains a woman’s unequivocal right. “The court cannot deny the woman the right of Khula,” says lawyer Summaiya Zaidi, adding that Khula is when the wife applies to the court for dissolution of the marriage contract. While Islam encourages the family unit be kept intact, provisions of Khula and divorce have been given to both genders to be able to free themselves if a marriage fails despite trying on grounds of solid reasons.

The Pakistani women risking it all for their rights

In Zaidi’s experience, the most common grounds for women seeking Khula are domestic violence, physical and/or emotional abuse, inability of husband to provide for her financially and lack of love or affection given by the husband. “It can also be just general unhappiness or hatred for the husband. The provision for Khula is found in the premise that Islam concedes the right to a wife to free herself from the contract where life becomes a torture for both.” However, Zaidi explains this is not an absolute right but is controlled by the court. “A successful exercise of this right is dependent on the Judge reaching the conclusion that the spouses cannot live together within the limits of God,” she says. In most cases of Khula, as permitted by Islamic law, the woman agrees to let go of the Meher (dower) that the husband has to give to her and may also agree on further monetary negotiations to work her way out of a marriage.

Mufti Muhammad Zahid affirms it is a right Islam has granted to women. Like many mainstream muftis (Islamic jurists), he believes both spouses must agree on the act of Khula. “One sided Khula initiated by the wife with the husband not agreeing to it, is unreliable,” he says. But he also agrees that the Qazi, which today amounts to the Judge of a family court, can nullify the nikaah on solid grounds.

Fight for rights

Khula is different from Talaq-i-Tafweez, explains Zaidi. The latter is the power to grant a divorce; this right, though, belongs to the husband, yet it can be delegated to another such as his wife or a third person either absolutely or conditionally, limited by time or permanently. “The person to whom the right has been delegated can then pronounce Talaq accordingly. In essence, this means that the wife can divorce herself. Such a Talaq, once exercised, would be effective after expiry of 90 days unless revoked by husband or wife,” says Zaidi. The nikahnama carries this optional clause and with rising awareness an increasing number of women have begun to check the box of Talaq-i-Tafweez in the marital contract.

For women like Sajida, Khula is what she calls a lifesaving decision. While reasons for Khula vary from couple to couple, in Sajida’s experience it was her ex-husband’s lack of responsibility, taking her for granted and considering her useless. “He was very jealous and unkind. I cooked for him and looked after the house and even contributed financially but he never valued anything. If I were not an educated or working woman I would have committed suicide,” she shares with a shudder.

Khula was not the first option for her and she tried to make things work for almost a decade. “I just wanted him to respect me but he never did. He told me many times that I am fat and ugly,” she says. Sajida’s ex-husband, who suffered from bipolar disorder, let go of her very easily. “We didn’t have any kind of physical contact since years, so he felt guilty. I feel it was the main reason he easily let me go,” she says, and shares that she considers herself lucky to be out of a life of confinement.

‘Khula’ without husband’s consent is un-Islamic: CII

For some of Sajida’s contemporaries, however, the options are less relenting and women are forced to live in marriages where the reasons for opting for Khula would be more than valid, such as impotency, mental or physical disorders, and abuse or even infidelity.

Time to accept

While Khula is undeniably a right and the acceptance levels may have increased, it is never taken lightly. The first reaction of most people Sajida encountered was that this is the price urban Pakistani women are paying for economic empowerment. ‘Yeh human rights walay aur TV dramay aurton ke dimagh karab kartay hain (human rights activists and television dramas have corrupted our women)’ is a common reaction when the increased rates of Khula are brought up.

Women’s rights activists fiercely defend a woman’s right to be able to liberate herself from a crippling marriage. “But it’s never a good thing that a family gets broken. Unlike what people assume, human rights activists like myself, who support women’s rights, do not encourage women to seek divorce and make it their duty to listen to both sides of the story. We try to reconcile their differences,” says Mahnaz Rahman of the Aurat Foundation.

But sometimes the differences are irreconcilable. Such was the case with Naila* who stayed in an abusive marriage for 26 years but never considered seeking Khula. Instead, her marriage ended with her husband divorcing her on his second wife’s pressure. “I am from the generation when mothers taught their daughters ‘Jis ghar mein shareef aurat ki doli jaati hai, wahan se uska janaza uth ta hai’ (a decent woman’s funeral is in the same home where she goes as a bride). This doli-to-janaza mentality was so firmly driven in a girl’s mind that she chose to suffer in silence,” says Naila. She could not take that leap of faith as she felt staying in the marriage was for her children’s better future. The onus of protecting the children from the effects of a broken home sat squarely on the mothers and women would also brush issues under the rug for this reason, confirms Naila. “But sometimes children are better off when they do not see their mothers tormented,” she adds.

Reasons cited in cases of Khula vary but experts agree that economic empowerment of women is translating into the fact that they are no longer willing to live in a perpetual abuse or neglect. “With economic independence comes a sense of self-worth.  A sense of rights and women wonder why they should tolerate unjust behaviour,” says Rahman.

“We are witnessing fairly rapid social change in cities across Pakistan with regards to gender norms and as Pakistan is one of the most rapidly urbanising countries in the world, these changes are significant for the country as a whole,” says Nida Kirmani, who teaches Sociology at Lahore University of Management Science and is a gender activist. In Kirmani’s opinion, migration to cities opens up possibilities for women to move away from the restrictions of extended kinship networks, which sometimes allows them more room to challenge social norms.

More and more girls in urban Pakistan are getting equal opportunities of education. They are topping the grades and getting good jobs. “See Karachi: Two generations of boys in this city have gotten pre-occupied with political activities, their education and careers took a back seat. The girls filled that gap, and excelled, and went ahead,” adds Rahman. But she agrees the levels of tolerance among women have receded. “The overall climate of intolerance in our society is effecting the institution of marriage too,” opines Rahman.

Wind of change

Khula may be a woman’s right but is not always a smooth ride. Based on the cases Zaidi has handled, she advises women to make sure they get all their valuable belongings out of the house before they leave. “Leave first for a safe secure home and then apply for Khula,” she says, explaining how a woman applying for Khula can make the man vindictive and even harmful. “In most cases the potential drama of divorce is unveiled when one reads the grounds for Khula as stated in the Plaint by the woman. Even if a man was willing to grant the Khula, once he reads the allegations against him he may become defensive; it affects his ego,” mentions Zaidi. She believes it works both ways: If a woman were to read such allegations against her, her ego would also be hurt. “It is never nice to read in official documentation that one was an awful spouse,” she adds.

“It was a shocker when I received that brown envelope from the court informing me that my wife had applied for Khula,” says Salman*, a resident of South Karachi, who confesses that the document was the wake-up call which made him amend some of his ways. “Our families got involved because our three children’s lives were at stake and convinced her to give me a second chance,” he shares. It was then he agreed to go for marriage counselling with his wife. “If this had not happened, I know I would have continued beating her. I am not a bad man. I love my family. But I never thought her threats of leaving me could ever be true. I never took her seriously,” he says. Eventually, the couple did not get separated. According to his wife, “No one changes completely but now he knows he can’t cross certain limits.”

While Khula may be a liberating option for women not all women are innocent or fair in how they file the cases. Revenge is a very real factor both in cases of Khula or divorce and both genders indulge in this very basic human emotion.

Zaidi has worked on cases where the man needs defending. She cites the example of a case where the man was not guilty of the reasons specified in the Suit against him, which were cruelty, mental torture and lack of financial security. “If we didn’t defend him he would have to pay her maintenance,” she says.

Undoubtedly, more Pakistani women today feel empowered enough to leave unhappy marriages. “Most people would argue that this is cause for concern,” says Kirmani. “But I think this is a welcome change as many women suffer too long in silence.” But for single mother Aisha*, who opted for Khula and remarried few years later, this trend is neither good nor bad. “If previous generations suffered, with more awareness of women’s rights hopefully future generations will progressively get better. It’s a part of progress, of life moving forward.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

She was 13 and he was 39 – Rape & Consent

Men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price. PHOTO: FILE

The 15-year-old girl from Lahore gave her “consent” and he was her “boyfriend”, and so it is not rape, they say.

This case is garnering a very expected response. But why are we surprised? It reminds me of a case I came across a while back. A 13-year-old girl fell for her 39-year-old neighbour. They started chatting via the internet. One day, when she was home alone, he coerced her into having a sexual encounter. Reality was not as the girl had imagined. When it actually happened, she yelled, cried and resisted but was raped. But the men in her own family, her own relatives, were of the opinion that this incident should be brushed under the rug and no complain should be lodged with the police.

“Larki buhut taiz hai. Ghalti humari hi larki ki hai. Chakkar chalaya hua tha us aadmi se. Yeh to hona hee tha.”

(The girl is very fast. The fault lies with our girl. She had an affair with that man. This was bound to happen).

This is not to say that it is just men who further these stereotypes.

It would also be unfair to assume that only females are raped. Painful incidents where young boys are raped or sexually abused mercilessly keep surfacing on the media. But the numbers, compared to females, are jarringly lower. Hence, here we will discuss the predicament women are faced with.

Staring in our faces is the reality that unless a woman, of any age, has pushed away, kicked or tried to hit the man forcing himself upon her, and has signs of that physical scuffle in the form of torn clothes and bruises, she will not be considered a victim of ‘rape’. And even that will be accepted only if the man was a stranger practically. If at all she had an inclination towards the man and/or had any one-on-one communication with him at any point in the past, she will be considered one of loose character and having brought the ‘inevitable’ upon herself.

This definition of rape is so inbuilt in our society’s system that the idea of rape beyond this is considered… well… not rape. So much so that other categories of rape, in which some form of consent is present at some stage, may be involved from the woman’s side, are ruled off the list of kinds of rape in an absolutist fashion.

The girl gang raped in Lahore was a minor. Even if, hypothetically, she knew or liked the man, she is a child, not an adult. It is recognised as statutory rape even under Pakistani law which is generally not the most women-friendly. But a Pakistani publication went as far as using insensitive language like “…to meet her boyfriend…” and “the tests proved that the couple had been engaged in a consenting relationship”.

If this is the mentality being echoed by an English language publication, what thought process do we expect the average uneducated or less evolved Pakistani to exhibit? If the minor is not old enough to have a driver’s license or an identity card, is he or she old enough to discern and decide the consequences of indulging in a sexual relationship?

The 13-year-old girl I mentioned earlier was a normal, curious child who knew little what this encounter with her almost 40-year-old neighbour would lead to. But that man knew exactly what he was doing. How is this, then, not rape?

Another example is how every time we use the term “marital rape”, many, if not all, will express shock over the idea – shock that is genuine, as it is considered unthinkable that anything within the bond of marriage could be wrong. Others know what it means but say all is fair in nikkah and vows.

But perhaps the most insidious form of sexual exploitation is when a woman is exploited via emotional manipulation. Leading someone on with the pretence of commitment and promises of a marriage has led many girls and women in our society to points of no return. And this happens across the board – it is not restricted to urban or rural, affluent or underprivileged. After giving their all, women are left in the lurch.

Again, men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price.

Thus in many cases, the seeming “consent” actually has layers of details in the background that one does not know. Talking about this is important so that as a society, we learn to understand the difference.

Kasur child pornography: Knowing the difference between resistance and consent

Published: August 10, 2015

One official has called it “the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history.” PHOTO: REUTERS

I don’t curse. But this is a rare occasion where I would love to abuse the perpetrators of the Kasur children’s sexual abuse atrocity in the vilest possible terms. However, here’s the thing about cursing – If I curse, I would end up using words that revile their mothers, sisters, and use the same pile of filth in words that they actually went and committed by use of force, intoxication and blackmailing.

So I would only be furthering the same thought process, where sex is connected with a position of power.  People who curse using sexual terminology are played into feeling a sense of control, and it allows one to vent unrestrictedly. In a twisted and mutated way, so does rape or molesting a child. So no, cursing will not help. We have to come up with something better. Understanding how child sexual abuse is happening in a society where the Youtube blocks have clearly not mitigated paedophilia, leave alone pornography, some things needs to be understood.

This particular incident is so painful and sensitive that we have re-evaluated each word we are using. Scandal, for example, is a wrong word to use here, because it can be used for rumour or gossip. This incident is no rumour it happens to be a real wound that will remain etched in the Pakistani nation’s collective memory. One must also not compare the criminals with animals, because such brutality is rare among animals.

All I can do is pray earnestly that may they be punished without an iota of compassion shown to them, may they be made a bad example of, and may they burn in the lowest depths of hell.

Yet, just condemning them to hell is not enough. Some 500 abused children, 15 accused (the youngest of them is allegedly just 14-years-old), seven FIRs, and a judicial probe order later, have we learnt anything about the monstrosity that child sexual abuse is? This had been going on for years! Black mailing, cover ups, a silent town. The details will keep emerging as the story unfolds, and we may never know what the exact truth is.

These children were in big numbers, and numbers jolt us awake, albeit temporarily. But what about what happens around us?

Have we seen the number of street children in Karachi alone, and do we realise that each one of them is sexually molested within days of being initiated onto the open roads?

Which one of us has not come across stories of children being molested sexually?

The accused, for whom we all are praying for eternal damnation, are from among us. Sexual abuse at a tender age rewires the brain in mysterious ways. Every child who has undergone this trauma suffers from neurobiological, as well as long-term psychological effects. Each case will be different, as will how the child, even when a grown adult, processes it.

But the scar will remain. For some, the long-term impacts may be milder but debilitating– like deep-rooted psychiatric disorders, depression, anxiety, failed relationships, inherently low self-esteem, use of sex as a means of feeling better about themselves, and irresponsible decisions when it comes to sexual activity. For others, it might be an aversion to sex and prudish behaviour for a long time. In a worst case scenario, he/she who was once the victim, is now the perpetrator.

Pakistan, fortunately, still has a social system where very few will agree with post-modernist and other theories, where childhood is not considered the age of innocence. An example is what was said in the California Childhood Sensuality Circle, by its main figure Valida Davila, in 1981:

“We believe children should begin sex at birth”.

A legal minor, or a child, is a child, not yet in a position where he or she can make an informed decision about entering into such activity. While the law of Pakistan agrees with this, and whether the child resisted or not, considers it statutory rape when a minor is sexually molested, not everyone in society agrees.

I came across a recent case, and this is factual, where a 12-year-old girl was raped by a man in his 40s. The two had been interacting and chatting as they lived in the same neighbourhood. Even after the rape was proven and the man confessed, people of the neighbourhood and the girl’s own relatives were heard saying

“It was not really rape as she is a very tez (conniving) girl and was having an affair with him; she never resisted”.

The child was a curious 12-year-old with raging hormones, not a consenting adult.

The difference must be understood in the backdrop of the Kasur incident, because now that the entire community knows which children were sexually abused and filmed, those films will be run and rerun to see where there were signs of resistance, and where the child seemed to consent. Sadly, but surely, the incident will haunt those 500 young lives and their families in a judgmental society.

Child sexual abuse perpetrators, as psychologists confirm, often befriend the child and develop a comfort level where they do not have to use physical force. Yet, because it is a child in question, it is an unfair equation and abuse of the highest order.

But what is perhaps most worrisome, that there is a market out there, and an avid watcher of these films, who may not be an active paedophile himself, but enjoys the sickening, cheap thrills of watching a helpless child being forced into the act.

This is an unsafe, bad, bad world. In your community, watch out for any suspicious activity, and report it, whether it is your child or someone else’s. Protect your child at all costs, especially when at a formative, unripe age where the child cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Do not trust anyone with your child. And if you happen to know someone who was a victim, stop judging that person. Most importantly, seek help, both psychological and legal.

May the Kasur incident be the last of its kind. And may we have learnt some lessons to protect our children.

Dreams from Balochistan: A garbage picker from Quetta makes a movie, tells his tale

Published: June 28, 2015
http://tribune.com.pk/story/910980/dreams-from-balochistan-a-garbage-picker-from-quetta-makes-a-movie-tells-his-tale/
Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers. PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers. PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

KARACHI: A part of his face may still be scarred but this strapping young 18-year-old man from Quetta has eyes full of dreams, and some of these dreams have begun to come true.

Life changed for Ashraf Khan since people from Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP)-Pakistan stumbled upon him. The teenager has learnt lessons beyond his years. By the age of 15, he had already experienced poverty, an acid injury, garbage picking as a profession, and drug addiction as an escape.

Read: Balochistan unrest: FC nails six alleged insurgents in separate raids

“It was Ramazan and I was seven years old,” recalled Ashraf. “We put slabs of wood on the wall as makeshift cupboards and one of them carried a bottle of acid. I was sleeping on the floor. It was dark. My mother came to pick something and dropped the acid on me by mistake.”

His handsome features, once ravaged by acid burns, have now begun to emerge again, thanks to the treatment for which IDSP and Indus Hospital have helped him. Ashraf became a garbage picker around the same time he had the accident. With nine siblings and a father too old and sick to work, child labour was inevitable, that too the worst kind as a scavenger of waste.

“I would earn Rs200 to Rs300 a day, and would spend it mostly on my treatment,” he said. “I used to get two injections a day. My face used to bleed and I would smell of and ooze pus. People could not sit with me and have food.”

Finding a guiding hand from IDSP, he was brought to Karachi some two and a half years ago when he was operated on at Indus Hospital. “I cannot express how happy I was. My Ammi could not believe it when my brother sent her my picture. I had a face once again.” Ashraf has never been to school and talks in Urdu with difficulty, but has already produced a documentary film on the plight of garbage pickers and it has been well-received.

Read: Balochistan govt announces general amnesty for militants who lay down their arms

Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers.

PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

Ashraf is one of the 30 students who exhibited their short films and documentaries at the Pak-American Cultural Center under the IDSP Film Festival, 2015. Sensitive subjects, such as target killing, violence, human rights, living in conflict zones, sectarian violence and social marginalisation were tackled deftly in these films. “All the funding to make these films was provided by IDSP,” said Asma Zafar, IDSP’s institutional support manager, who is a mentor to many young people from Balochistan.

Read: In session: Balochistan Assembly debates power shortage

Ashraf admitted the idea to make a film came to his heart. “I want more and more people to see it so that people understand what garbage pickers go through,” he said about his production and directorial debut in which he dabbled with a little bit of acting too.

Today, Ashraf has started reading and writing, and he guides other young garbage pickers in Karachi. “Only a garbage picker can understand the problem of another one,” he said, sharing his dream of setting up a centre for garbage pickers. “When young people do not get mentors and guidance, they can get lost. If I had not gotten guidance, I would be just another druggy lost on the streets and life would have left me behind.”

Pursuing his passion: Two goats for a film

Another budding filmmaker, Ali Ahmed, 23, is ready to pay any price to pursue his passion for film making. “I had to sell two of my goats to make the film and come to Karachi for the screening,” he said. “My family thinks all films are vulgar like the Bollywood ones. I want to make films that remove their misconception.”

Read: Water for all: Gwadar desalination plant ready after probe

Ahmed’s father wants him to go to Dubai instead to make some money but he insisted on pursuing his passion for filmmaking. “I have started a small production concern in Quetta and I dream that one day I will make a film that will be showed in a cinema.”

His 20-minute-long film, called ‘Dhutuk’ meaning doll in Brahwi, comments on the devastating effects of terrorism on families. “I want to show that when one person dies in an act of terrorism, an entire family dies with him or her.” After coming to IDSP, Ali feels he has found his calling and knows what to work towards.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2015.

Forced to sell alcohol: Why is the ‘ummah’ silent over the plight of Chinese Muslims?

Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes. PHOTO: AFP

Imagine if you are a vegetarian Hindu and hold the cow sacred, that beef is shoved into your mouth. Imagine if you are a staunch Christian, that you are forbidden to baptise your newborn baby.

Painful? Yes.

Some of us may even say what’s new in this, and Pakistan’s minorities have suffered this and more. And they have. And no minority anywhere in the world should have to go through this.

But there is a huge difference in this and what is happening to the Muslims in Xinjiangprovince in China. In Pakistan, this is done at the hands of extremists. But in China, it is at an official level that Muslims are forbidden from practicing Islam. The last year or more has seen repeated incidents of Muslims, a religious minority in China, being coerced into going against their religious beliefs. That too under state patronage.

To remind ourselves, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan’s bestie, is where media is stillstate-owned. Instead of monitoring media, they control it! Coercion is also a norm when it comes to the nation’s reproductive health decisions. While family planning is a legitimate aim, the modus operandi is faulty and against the spirit of human freedom to lead lives as they see fit.

What is happening in Xinjiang is another example of this tendency we see in China. While it is justified if China wants to mitigate extremist groups in the region, why must all Muslims in the region have to suffer because of what some are doing?

It makes one shudder to see the news and images that on social media in recent months. Imams being forced to dance, fasting being banned, women being forcibly stopped from wearing veils and men not being allowed to grow beards . The imams were, in fact, made to swear to an oath that they would not teach religion to their children. They were forced to tell children that prayer was harmful for the soul and had to chant the slogan that,

“Our income comes from the CKP (Chinese Communist Party) not from Allah (SWT)”.

In a verdict that made headlines, a court in China sentenced a Uighur Muslim man to six years in prison for “provoking trouble” and growing a beard. His wife also, reportedly, was served a two-year sentence for using a veil to cover her face.

The recent most bit of news is very disturbing. Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes, and display them in eye-catching ways to undermine Islam’s influence on locals and as part of a campaign to weaken religion, according to reports.

While extremism leading to terrorism is something every nation will deal with in its own way, reactive policies end up, in fact, further fuelling extremism. The more you try to stop something by force and not via dialogue, the more it will get inflamed. The cycle of hate and violence will continue if we keep pushing communities and people against the wall.

While the Pakistan-China friendship is encouraging for our nation, one is forced to wonder how come our rulers, who claim to be staunch Muslims, have not raised their voice against all this in any forum. Is it a case of vested interests silencing an important issue?

Sadly, Pakistan is not the only Muslim country that has remained silent on this issue. The “ummah” remains conspicuous by its absence as usual, chooses its battles wisely, and only fights for causes that have an incentive in the end. There is no one to fight for the underdog. In this case, that is the Chinese Muslims. It seems that China is too strong, and the world is too enamoured by it or too indebted to it to take up this human rights issue.

What these people are being subjected to leaves us also with another introspection in the end. Part of the problem here is stereotyping. The beard. The pants above the ankles. The burqa. The face veil. Things that are expressions of a centuries’ old faith are being seen as signature marks of extremism, so much so that peace loving Muslims face reverse discrimination in their own communities and in their own homeland.

The next time we assess someone on the basis of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes we have been fed, let us check ourselves for unfairness that we all are often guilty of.