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A new wave of pedophilia and child abuse strikes Pakistan

Portraying an abused child. Image from Flickr by Moushuf Chowdhury. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Just over a year after Imran Ali was executed for what is arguably Pakistan's most well known child abuse case, the rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab Ansari, police have arrested Sohail Ayaz — a serial pedophile, child rapist and registered sex offender — for the drugging and rape of a 13-year-old boy.

On November 12, 2019, authorities in Rawalpindi, a city in Pakistan's Punjab province, caught Ayaz soon after the victim's mother registered a First Information Report:

A convicted pedophile, Ayaz had been deported to Pakistan by the UK government owing to accounts of multiple child rapes, as well as his involvement with a child pornography ring in Romania. A chartered accountant by profession, Ayaz was hired as a consultant by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government in 2017, but having failed to run a background check, they were unaware that he had previously served a four-year jail term:

During his five-day interrogation for this latest crime, Ayaz confessed that he had raped over 30 children and uploaded videos to the dark web, causing online discussion to turn towards the endemic nature of child sexual abuse in the country and the need for measures to be put in place to prevent minors from becoming victims in the first place:

A pressing reminder of the need for reform came on the morning of November 15, when a tweet by Pakistani actress Nadia Jameel told of another gruesome incident: a nine-year-old boy being brutally raped by his landlord. Although the offender has since been arrested by the authorities, concerns abound over the child's trauma and his chances of physical, emotional and psychological healing.

Responses to Jameel's tweet included suggestions that legalising prostitution could help channel sexual urges, as well as calls for a proper child protection framework and the need for provincial and the federal governments to devise an effective strategy in the face of a failing system.

Child abuse cases are increasing

Despite the country's severe punishments for child abuse — including castration, life imprisonment, and the death penalty — sex offenders keep molesting children and case numbers are climbing.

In 2018, the Sahil Foundation, an NGO in Pakistan that works in the child abuse space, reported an 11 percent increase in child abuse cases from the previous year. Out of the 3,832 cases of child abuse it recorded, 55 precent of the victims were girls and 45 percent were boys. The 2019 numbers are even more disturbing: as many as 1,304 Pakistani children (729 girls and 575 boys) have had to face some form of sexual abuse within the last six months, causing social media users to ask a lot of questions:

The FIA referred to in the previous tweet is Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency.

What are the characteristics of a predator?

Part of the challenge in clamping down on sex offenders before they strike is that predators are not always easy to identify. In a blog post, writer Meher Khursheed explained:

Because we expect abusers to be loners, mentally deranged, and overtly creepy, we aren’t able to see when a predator is a charming, friendly and even popular person in our midst.

Many a time, these predators befriend the target or hunt for readily available prey — children who can be victimized and trapped, as was the case with Zainab Ansari and countless others whose names and faces may not even have made it into mainstream media coverage.

Even though society is aware and concerned about the threats, many of the targeted minors come from poorer backgrounds, including child laborers, who are more easily able to be abducted.

The death penalty is not a deterrent

In a post on Dawn.com, Saroop Ijaz argued that not even the death penalty guarantees deterrence from such heinous crimes. He also pointed to the fact that in such instances, news reports tend to focus more on the perpetrator, overlooking both the on-the-ground realities and the magnitude of the problem.

Some say that castration, as happens in Indonesia, might be a more fitting consequence for sexual crimes, but human rights activists suggest even these punishments don’t create sufficient deterrence.

Many believe, however, that the effectiveness of such punishments should be a secondary concern, and that the more urgent needs include establishing a special task force charged with identifying these culprits, digging deeper into the psychology of such miscreants, and raising awareness about the sexual abuse of minors.

But could part of the solution include rehabilitation, at least for less serious crimes? One British constabulary chief, Simon Bailey, who heads Operation Hydrant, a child sexual abuse investigation, has suggested exactly that — though he admits that people will find such an approach difficult to hear.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's leading psychiatrists have been begging the authorities to take concrete steps to prevent the rape and murder of children, instead of treating these incidents solely as law and order cases. Their suggestions include launching an effective media campaign to sensitise communities about the areas of vulnerability for children, pinpointing potential threats and risk factors, and identifying the various forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect.

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