The first thing that probably comes to a parent’s mind when their child is brutally taken from them is, “why couldn’t I protect her/him?” That is most likely what the parents of seven-year-old Samia, a nursery school student from Wari, were thinking when they had to confront the agonising truth about their beloved child—that she had been lured into a neighbour’s flat, raped and then strangled to death so that she would not be alive to identify the rapist. The rapist, who has been caught later, is the relative of a neighbour and thought he could get away with this despicable crime.
The child, like thousands of others who have been raped and killed or have survived rape or other kinds of sexual assault, could not be saved despite having parents who loved her and in spite of being so close to home. The question that needs to be asked is, who really is responsible for a child’s protection? While wailing for his daughter, the father of the Wari victim stated that he could not save his child and pleaded all parents of girls to be vigilant about these monsters. In his unspeakable grief he has given us some direction regarding how we can protect our children.
We are urgently in need of waking up to the fact that our children are vulnerable even in the safest of places—the schools or institutions they go to, the neighbourhood they live in, even their own homes. Child abuse is not something that has just started to happen in our society. It existed long before the media started to report on it, and it is likely to continue and intensify if we do not take drastic steps to stop it. As guardians and parents, we have to be more vigilant about our children’s immediate whereabouts. Children must be taught what constitutes inappropriate touching—even from someone close to them. They must be warned of the dangers of going with neighbours, relatives or acquaintances to isolated areas. In the Wari rape case, the child had gone to the 8th floor of their building to play with a friend and was informed that he was sleeping. So she was waiting at the lift when the relative of the friend’s family said he would show her the terrace and lured her upstairs where he raped and killed her. If she had been accompanied by a family member, she probably would have been saved.
Modern lifestyles that include living in flats in high-rises have increased the risks of such heinous crimes to be committed. In a building where hundreds of people live, and where the adult residents seldom interact with each other, there are enough secluded spots for predators to lurk and prey on children. The community spirit of old neighbourhoods has almost disappeared—and along with it, the inherent protections that such close communities provided. We need to reconnect with each other as members of a community so that we can protect each other and our children.
Of course, it is hardly as simple as that. The silence surrounding child abuse is a major catalyst that allows this horrific phenomenon to spread and intensify. It is only after a child is dead that people are shaken into action, to protest and demand punishment of the rapist-murderers. It is as if only death will give the impetus to make the crime public. But the truth is that children are being sexually abused all the time, sometimes by their closest relatives, resulting, in many cases, in permanent damage to their mental wellbeing. Research has shown that individuals sexually abused in their childhood may become abusers themselves when they reach adulthood or even earlier, demonstrating the disastrous implications such violence has on a society as a whole. Children have to be encouraged to speak out against any kind of abuse so that parents/guardians can take action to put a stop to it. Thus, grown-ups have to be more receptive to a child’s words—in many cases, a child may have informed her mother or other relative but her allegations have been dismissed as imaginary, or worse, she has been scolded into silence. This culture of sweeping things under the carpet to maintain the status quo and so-called “family honour” has been a major reason why the abusers keep on abusing.
The principal of a madrasa who systematically abused at least 12 girls of his institution could do this because he relied upon the general perception that his position of power and reverence in the community, as well as the fear he had created by threatening to leak doctored pictures of his victims, gave him the immunity to continue his crimes.
There is, no doubt, a crying need for sex education in schools and at home and for frank discussions on child sexual abuse among adults, children and adolescents. It is ridiculous that child marriage is so widely accepted in our society, yet sex education is not considered an essential component of a school’s curriculum. The special provisions incorporated in our Child Marriage Act indicate the state’s indulgence in this practice that, in reality, legitimises child sexual abuse.
While family and society in general have a huge task ahead to come up with measures to protect their children, whether at home or in the streets, the biggest responsibility lies with the state and its machinery. The legal system, in particular, has to be such that the message of culpability is made loud and clear. For that to happen, we cannot have a less-than-2-percent conviction rate of rapists, which is due to several factors including out-of-court settlements, victims having to prove they were raped, the need for medical evidence, and negligence and apathy of the police.
Images of nursery school children protesting their classmate’s murder are disturbing reminders that as a society, we have failed miserably. We have failed to protect our children from the worst crimes that have taken many of their lives and left thousands of others scarred for life. It is about time we—whether we are parents/guardians, educators, caregivers, law enforcers, law makers or court officials—worked together to root out the scourge of sexual and other kinds of abuse of children. If we cannot give our children their childhoods, what are our lives worth?
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.