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How many more Zainabs will it take

21 Jan 2018

Last week, the body of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari was found lying on a rubbish heap in Kasur, a district in Punjab, Pakistan, almost a week after she disappeared on her way to class. An autopsy revealed she had been assaulted, raped and strangled.  She was just a child. A child whose life was cruelly taken away from her, making her the latest victim in a huge spate of kidnappings and murders of young girls in the city.

Comments and posts took over Facebook newsfeeds, as social media flooded with messages of solidarity with the victim’s family, and anger at the inaction of the province’s government. However, as usual, the victim blaming was instantaneous, as many placed the blame on her parents for leaving her with relatives, whilst they left Pakistan to go on Islamic pilgrimage.

A child’s safety is the parents responsibility”, read one comment. “How could her parents let her walk alone?” read another. But where were the comments about teaching your sons not to rape? How about teaching the patriarchy to respect women? The only person to blame is the monster who did this in the first place. Not Zainab’s poor parents, and certainly not a seven-year-old child. Please let that resonate for a second. No female, let alone a seven-year-old, does anything to invite harassment, abuse and rape. To suggest such an argument defies comprehension in all individuals with a right thinking mind.

This case in particular has led to widespread outrage and angry clashes between police and protesters demanding justice, re-igniting the debate regarding the prevalence of child abuse, in a country that tends to neglect sex education as a whole. Two protesters were killed last week when police opened fire on demonstrators who attempted to storm headquarters, furious that authorities are seemingly not doing enough to prevent the rash of attacks and killings in their city.

“No female, let alone a seven-year-old, does anything to invite harassment, abuse and rape”

Zainab was discovered five days after going missing, about a mile from her house. CCTV footage of her movements before she disappeared shows a girl being led away by hand by a man. So, what were the police doing during that time? Or not doing, so to speak. They talk of the most exemplary punishments for the perpetrator, yet he is yet to be found. Rather, investigating officials seem to be fixated on eradicating allegations of government inaction and inefficiency for political mileage, instead of acting pragmatic in discourse.

As a British, Pakistani-Indian, it would be easy for me to sit here and pull the wool over my eyes, I can act as if cases like Zainab’s in the motherland, do not have anything to do with me, when I am sat safely in the country of my birth and my home. But as a human being, I have to join in in raising my voice, because if not for Zainab then for who?

I sit and think of my cousins in Pakistan, most of whom are around her age, and I can only hope that one day their homeland will be a place that keeps them safe. As it stands, there are an average of 11 cases of child sex abuse reported from across the country every single day, and those are just the ones we know about. The statistics are, evidently, grossly inaccurate and unfortunately, underrepresented, due to the majority of cases going unreported. All over Pakistan, women, girls and boys are falling victim to the serious epidemic that the government is not sufficiently acknowledging.

In August 2015, Kasur sparked nationwide condemnation and finger pointing when a paedophile ring was discovered, with videos of over 270 children being abused being sold and traded. To add to this, there have been 12 similar cases of girls being abducted, raped and murdered in the same region, within the last year alone. How many more Zainab’s are there? And why haven’t their abusers been caught? Isn’t that something that’s worth talking about? 

Just after Zainab was discovered, the body of a four-year-old girl named Aasma, was found dead in sugarcane fields in Mardan, my family’s home city in Pakistan. A post-mortem pointing to her too being assaulted before being murdered. Has the perpetrator been found? Of course not, and he probably never will be. The district’s government has already faced accusations of criminal negligence for failing to take notice of the incident. Aasma, like Zainab, will remain one of the hundreds of girls who is simply added to a list – and likely never crossed off it.

“By being constantly and consistently silent about child abuse and the larger issue of child protection, authorities are essentially complicit”

Obstacles such as the absence of tools and forensic methods, means that perpetrators often get away with it, reinforcing the “shame culture” from which they benefit from. This, coupled with the general aversion of stirring uneasy and uncomfortable conversations within a society where the issue is taboo, means they will effectively get away with it. It’s as if they are taught that they are doing wrong, but not wrong enough. And by being constantly and consistently silent about child abuse and the larger issue of child protection, authorities are essentially complicit. The issue is treated as an analogy, rather than a widespread problem that needs serious and sustained conversations and action.

The system has failed Zainab and we won’t ever find justice for her until sexual abuse prevention education is added to the Pakistani curriculum and given to teachers and healthcare professionals as a mandatory requirement. The importance of consent can never ever be underlooked, and until there are awareness campaigns, police programmes and the successful prosecution of perpetrators, only then will children have some sort of protection.

Zainab’s case is likely to receive just a few more days of media attention in Pakistan (and even less internationally), but we owe it to her and the countless others to not let their deaths be in vain. We cannot sit by idly and let her name disappear from headlines like so many before her. Just how many Zainab’s will it take until something is done?

We must continue to talk about Zainab. We must share her story and stand out against child abuse in a conservative Pakistan, with a society that perceives taboo subjects to be more “shameful” than silence. We must continue to protest and show our strength in numbers, even from overseas.

Future perpetrators of these heinous crimes are more aware than ever that they can be absolved. If the public do not raise their voice and demand action, this perpetual cycle of inaction can’t be broken. If using our voices is all we can do to help, then that is what we must do, for there is no safe place in silence, not here, not there, not anywhere.

The right to safety is a common cause, and a child, no matter from what country, needs to be safe and protected.