Pakistan confronts child abuse taboo

Javeria was just eight years old when he started hanging out with a 24-year-old man in his neighbourhood.

    Male prostitutes pose in Lahore. Abused children often enter the sex trade

    "We became friends and then he led me to sex," he said 14 years later in a drop-in centre for male prostitutes in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

    Javeria's life collapsed soon after he was abused as a young boy and decided he was "zenana", or gay. Increasingly effeminate, he preferred to spend time with his mother and sisters.

    "It caused problems. My father and brothers would always beat me," he said. "When I was 14, I ran away from home for the first time."

    Social problem

    Throughout Pakistan there are thousands of boys and girls who fall victim to sexual abuse by men.

    In a conservative Muslim society where sex is seldom discussed openly, child abuse is perhaps society's greatest taboo, the victims' stories are only now beginning to trickle out.

    "I felt very dirty," wrote one 22-year-old man abused by a school caretaker as a six-year-old and three years later by a teacher. "These incidents shattered me. I can't explain the torture of those nights when loneliness was my only friend."

    In the last few years, organisations like Rozan have been working to educate children and teachers about issues such as child abuse. Their studies have produced some alarming findings.

    "We estimate that between 15 and 25% of children are sexually abused in Pakistan," said psychologist Zehra Kamal, adding that it affects boys and girls equally.

    "This does not include prostitution, or abuses which are culturally prevalent in the Frontier Province where it is part of our culture, part of our norms."

    In the conservative, tribal lands of North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, it is not uncommon for men who cannot find or afford a wife to have sex with young boys. In some areas boys wear garlands of flowers to show they have a "patron".

    The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says it receives reports from all over the country.

    "In Sindh there has been a tradition that even small landowners have a young good-looking boy who they patronise. In southern Punjab, it happens on a large scale," said Husain Naqi.

    "We have this problem in religious madrassahs (schools) , even in normal schools it is quite rampant. Wherever you go you will find complaints," he said.

    Abuse linked to prostitution

    In the drop-in centre for "men who have sex with men" in Lahore, Javeria sits with the letter A - for ex-lover Arif - scarred on his forearm in several places, after cutting it there with a razor blade.

    He has been selling sex on the streets of Lahore for at least five years, charging just a few dollars a time, often with several clients a night.

    "All 20 (male prostitutes) had experience of child abuse. Most of them were abused by mullahs"

    Tahir Ali Khilji,
    Drop-in centre for 'men who have sex with men'

    His friend Kanwal - they all use girl's names - arrived in Lahore at the age of 13 after running away from home, to be "befriended" by a man who offered him work.

    He soon found himself locked in a room for two months and repeatedly raped. "Then he started bringing his friends to have sex with me," he told Reuters. "They would also beat me."

    Tahir Ali Khilji, who runs the drop-in centre, sees a clear link between child abuse and prostitution, after conducting interviews with 20 young men in the centre.

    "All 20 had experience of child abuse," he said. "Most of them were abused by mullahs."

    Khilji, who was himself abused as a child, says he believes close to half of child abuse cases involve incest.

    "There is a very high prevalence of incest in this country," he said, adding that it was extremely rare for incest to be reported. "Even educated families do not want to know."

    Taboos slowly breaking down

    Ten years ago, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say child abuse was not acknowledged as a problem in Pakistan. These days the issue has slowly come out into the open, but many people still prefer to look the other way.

    Shaukat Nawaz Tahir, a spokesman for the Ministry of Women's Development and Social Welfare, says the government plans to conduct a sample study over the next year to evaluate the scale of the problem. But he suspects NGOs are exaggerating.

    "NGOs pick up an issue, there is no denial it does exist, but they build on it, make it very alarming in order to attract funding from donors," he told Reuters.

    Prosecutions for raping or molesting children are rare, but organisations such as Rozan insist the hundreds of cases reported each year are the tip of the iceberg.

    "It is very much a taboo subject," said Kamal. "People are working on it gradually, and slowly awareness is coming, but we are still far away."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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