Ignoring Their Cries: Domestic Violence, Rape, and Child Abuse in Pakistan

Cross-posted on Saira Says

**TRIGGER WARNING**: The following post describes sexual assault and domestic violence.

I spent middle school and high school in Karachi, Pakistan. I had a very close-knit group of friends, many of whom I am still close to today. One of the people I don’t talk to much anymore was a boy I’ll call Ali. In middle school, Ali was a disruptive student who was always getting into trouble. He was generally what we’d call a problem child or a nuisance.

I believe that Ali came from an abusive home. Though we never seriously talked about it much, he would occasionally come to school with fresh bruises and once even a black eye. All the teachers and school administrators knew about it and didn’t do much about it. With his interests in mind, however, the school always hesitated  on calling his parents regarding any trouble he got into because, I can only assume, that they were well-aware of what the punishment for him would be if his father were to receive a disciplinary call regarding any of his sons.

It became kind of a joke to be honest, Ali would make jokes about it while we, all of his friends, would sit around uncomfortably never quite knowing whether he was serious about his father beating him or not.

Looking back, I realize that the reason no one did or said anything was because they couldn’t. Even the adults. There is no legitimate foster care system in Pakistan and Ali came from a seemingly well-to-do family. These were family matters and though he got sympathetic looks from the adults, what could they do? Talk to his father? I don’t think that would go too well. They surely couldn’t call the police or social services.

At the end of the day, I don’t know for sure whether Ali had an abusive childhood but what I do know is that there are far too many domestic violence victims in Pakistan who have nowhere to turn to.

While conducting research for this blog post, I’m saddened to report that I was unable to find much on physical abuse of children. As always, these crimes tend to be accepted as good parenting and culture but what about when we have wealthy people beating and abusing their child maids? Those crimes go unreported as well and are more common than any of us could imagine.

A 2010 study titled Determinants of Child Abuse in Pakistani Families: Parental Acceptance-Rejection and Demographic Variables by Farah Malik states:

Although child abuse has become a focus of concern for government and public sectors for last two decades in  Pakistan but still physical abuse as harsh disciplinary and child rearing practices are common in Pakistani society.  Physical punishment at home or schools is a necessary part of our daily scenario. Each year, roughly estimated, about 50,000 children with observable injuries severe enough to require hospitalization are not even reported and an estimated 8 million children under age of 15 years out of 30 million of country’s population of this age are involved in child labor (Kamal, 1991). Kamran (2004) posed that Pakistan is perhaps offering the worse conditions for children than any other country in South Asia. Nearly 8 million children, or 40% of the total population of children under age of 5, suffer from malnutrition. About 63% of children between 6 months and 3  years have stunted growth and 42% are anemic and underweight. Poor conditions extend to the education sector.  About 23 million children in Pakistan have never been to school.

On the other hand, there is a plethora of information available on child sexual abuse in Pakistan and it is as disheartening as you’d expect it to be.

Since 2010, child sexual abuse in Pakistan has been on the rise. According to UNICEF Local Officer Shamshad Qureshi, “The lack of proper law enforcement, negligence of parents, lack of awareness among the children and the society as a whole remain the major reasons for continued occurrence of child abuse”.

According to Sahil, a nongovernmental organization working for child rights, the reported accounts of sexually abused boys and girls in Pakistan has grown from roughly 2,255 to 2,393 in 2011 (keep in mind that, similar to rape, child sexual abuse goes largely undetected or ignored in Pakistan). “Altogether, 4,846 people partook in 2,303 child abuses. Around 85 per cent children were abused for one time, five per cent for more than a day and the rest for unidentified period of time.”

Sahil also adds, that there was an increase in the number of parents reporting child sexual abuse. Nearly 75 per cent of the families of molested children approached police for relief. “With some cases settled out of court, police and courts processed majority of these cases. Abusers got death, jail and fine depending on the nature of the abuse.”

In Pakistan, women’s rights and access to proper shelter, protection, and care goes almost hand-in-hand with protecting against child sexual abuse especially with the perpetrator is within the family. Habiba Nosheen reports in The Atlantic that a lack of support for women makes it very difficult for mothers to protect their children from molesters and rapists within the family. Men tend to be the bread-winners of a family, so with hardly any shelters or safe houses for women as well as no funding for single mothers or those living in poverty, women and children do not have the means to leave the abusive environment.

The police and people in general, aren’t helpful either, Nosheen writes:

Sarah Zaman, who heads the Karachi-based NGO War Against Rape, says that combating predatory incest has been particularly difficult in Pakistan, where it can be difficult for political and social leaders to admit that such things could happen in an Islamic country.

The backlash against mainstream films [such as Bol and Saving Face] that attempt to expose such heinous human right’s abuses demonstrate this very notion. Either people don’t believe such things take place (they blame it on Israeli and American propaganda) or they’d prefer that we didn’t speak of them (skim through any of the comments on an Express Tribune piece related to women’s rights, I guarantee you’ll find some appalling ones). Victims of such violence are often forgotten or shunned and lead to more tragedy, as such was the case of the recently deceased Fakhra Yunus.

Fakhra Yunus: before and after her attack

For too many people in Pakistan, family honor comes first and as long as the rape, battery, and molestation stay in the closet, honor remains in tact.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that Pakistan is lagging far behind in punishing those responsible and even working on changing the attitudes that lead to these horrific crimes.

Let me pause here and add that perhaps the entire world is lagging behind in punishing violators of women’s rights. Let’s not forget that it was less than 20 years ago that rape as a tool of war was finally recognized as a crime by the United Nations and that in the United States alone, the conviction rates for rape are also abysmally low.

However, it is still shocking to me that domestic violence was outlawed in Pakistan not 20 years ago or even 10, but in 2009.

According to the Daily Times, the 2009 law aimed to cover not only “intentional acts of gender-based, physical and psychological abuse, but also includes “economic abuse, harassment, stalking, sexual abuse, verbal abuse and any other repressive behaviour” committed against women, children or other vulnerable people, with whom those accused have been or still are in a domestic relationship.”

Adding to this, acid throwing was outlawed in Pakistan a mere few months ago in November 2011. Alongside the acid throwing bill, another one titled The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill 2008 was also passed. It states that:

 Forcing a woman into marriage for settling a dispute to be a non- bailable offence

• Bartering a woman in such a way to be punishable by three to five years jail and a fine of Rs0.5 million

• Depriving a woman of her inheritance can lead to imprisonment of between five and 10 years or a fine of Rs1 million or both

• Forced marriages (other than those for settling disputes) to be punishable by between three and 10 years jail and a fine of Rs0.5 million

• Forcing a woman to “marry” the Holy Quran to result in a jail term of three to seven years and a fine of Rs0.5 million

The crime of acid throwing now comes with a prison sentence of 14 years. Unfortunately, it is too soon to tell whether these new bills will actually be implemented and used to punish those who are responsible for such horrific crimes. Looking at Pakistan’s track record for punishing such men is, sadly, not a good indicator of what is to come.

In a society where gender-based violence is largely accepted, often expected, and grossly underreported, such a law serves to at least bring the issue of domestic violence into the mainstream discourse and raise awareness. As an optimist, I truly believe that social awareness is the first step to social change.

But when Pakistan has journalists who publish articles describing how an acid throwing victim may have deserved the attack, we know the problem is far more deep-rooted than any one would possibly imagine. It’s not even that violence against women is accepted, it’s that many Pakistani men actually feel that women are subhuman and mere incubators; that they need to be put in their place when they step out of line. It’s a deeply ingrained mentality that, personally (and here comes the tiny pessimist in me), I don’t see changing any time soon.

There are occasional stories, however, of a surprisingly enlightened family or people who defy tradition and protect their women from barbaric ancient customs. Such is the story of Kainat Soomro whose parents refused to kill her in line with honor killing traditions after she was gang raped. The family is now struggling with the consequences of doing so but at least their daughter is still alive.

It is tragic but inspirational stories like these that may start a movement towards eliminating such practices. We need adults and families to stick up for their sisters, wives, and daughters.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just at home, female victims of rape and violence aren’t safe from the police either. According to a 1995 Human Rights Watch study, more than 70 percent of women in custody experience physical and sexual abuse at the hands of  police officers (please keep in mind that since these are numbers from 1995, the chances that they have changed is very likely, these attitudes and practices, however, have not changed). The report goes on to state:

Reported abuses include beating and slapping; suspension in mid-air by hands tied behind the victim’s back; the insertion of foreign objects, including police batons and chili peppers, into the vagina and rectum; and gang rape. Yet despite these alarming reports, police officers almost never suffer criminal penalties for such abuse, even in cases in which incontrovertible evidence of custodial rape exists.255 One senior police official told a delegation of local human rights activists that “in 95 percent of the cases the women themselves are at fault.”

What’s important to keep in mind is that often, women who report rape end up in prison themselves while their rapists walk free.

Between 50 and 80 percent of all female detainees in Pakistan are imprisoned under the Islamic Hudood Ordinances, penal laws introduced in 1979, which in law and in practice discriminate against women. Prior to the passage of the Hudood Ordinances, women were not directly involved with the criminal justice system in any significant number; since their introduction, thousands of women have been imprisoned under these laws alone. The steep rise in the number of female prisoners in turn increased the opportunity for police misconduct toward women.

The problem in Pakistan isn’t just lack of education and wealth, if that were the case, logically, children employed by the wealthy wouldn’t be tortured and murdered and women in respected families wouldn’t be abused. But as Tehmina Durrani demonstrated in her scathing tell-all book My Feudal Lord, domestic violence transcends class, culture, and education level.

One of problems may be that for many people, abuse, domestic violence, and treating women as lesser beings is what they are used to. Respect for our elders and the notion of never to question their judgment is customary in Pakistan, so if you grow up watching the women around you get beaten and treated as if they were slaves, then chances are you will do the same. Furthermore, how many victims of abuse go on to become abusers themselves? Studies show that the likelihood is extremely high.

Finally, there is sheer ignorance and hypocrisy. Too many people use religion as a means of suppressing women or spewing hateful rhetoric. Others, are just silly and ignorant. I actually have a male relative that once said that being in the presence of my sisters and I (I was barely in my teens at this point) was a sin because we wear jeans. Of course, my guess is he has changed his stance now since his daughters wore jeans when they visited this country and his daughter-in-law also wears them regularly. The point is, such seemingly silly and ignorant rhetoric does nothing to help women but further perpetuates the notion that women are somehow unequal or subpar; so beneath men, in fact, that they shouldn’t even dare to wear denim!

Islam loves women and mothers and surely does not condone the horrible acts that people commit in its name. Pakistan is capable of so much but it first needs to change this backwards way of thinking. Perhaps a push for education, domestic violence awareness campaigns, and funding for shelters and safe house’s will start the tide of change but until then, women and children like Ali and Kainat will continue to suffer and remain marginalized by a broken system.


Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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