Combating child sex abuse – rights and wrongs

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The sexual abuse of children in Pakistan is so widespread as to be almost commonplace. Occasionally there are incidents  – Kasur, for instance – that briefly hit the headlines and public awareness is momentarily raised, only to lapse into its default position of torpor within days.

From time to time prominent figures talk of the problem but few have anything constructive to offer, and politicians for the most part avoid it like the plague there being no votes in child sexual abuse.
There is little by way of academic research into the prevalence/incidence of the phenomenon, and a report by Save the Children on child prostitution stands in isolation. However, there is a plethora of anecdotal information of dubious accuracy.

A 2008 report in an otherwise reliable newspaper said that ‘a survey’ concluded there were 15-20,000 child prostitutes in Lahore alone, mostly living with families close to bus and railway stations.

The majority were said to be male and to have been abused themselves within the family before becoming sex workers. There are similar reports from all the provinces. The body of anecdotal evidence alone suggests that there is a considerable problem.

The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) notes…“Although the National Plan of Action to Combat Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children had been approved in 2006, co-ordinatedpolicies and programmes to deal with the hazard have yet to be implemented.”

Thus it is that we should welcome the ‘Conference on the Protection of Childhoods’ that was held in Lahore on 17th March, organised by the Human Rights Protection Centre (HRPC) and ‘Positive Pakistan’.

(NOTE). The HRPC and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) must not be confused or conflated. As far as I can tell the two have no linkages.)The conference seems to have been the first of its kind and at least on paper was promising, and I have not the slightest doubt that the organisers were acting in good faith.

There were distinguished panellists and the aim was to provide a platform for change and the raising of awareness in the wider public of awareness about child sexual abuse. The stage line-up was difficult to fault, but there was a problem with the audience.

Reports from those in attendance spoke of there being children who were abuse survivors and their families being present, a significant number of them from Kasur and the region around. It was said that they had been brought to the conference by the founder of HRPC who provided the transport to the venue.

As a professional social worker for much of my life I have to say that this represents a monstrous breach of confidentiality, one of the core values underpinning professional social work.

Again I have little doubt that the intention was good – but the execution was sub-par. Secondly, the majority of the proceedings were in English, which few if any of the Kasur survivors speaks. Thirdly and again in violation of every protocol around confidentiality there was an on-stage panel interview that included three adolescent survivors of sexual abuse.

They were identified by name and invited to address the audience. Fourthly the DG of a forensic laboratory made a slide presentation which included imagery of murder scenes and, appallingly, an image of Zainab a child abducted and murdered then cast aside on a rubbish dump.

The images were unedited and not pixilated. One slide showed details of Kainat, a survivor, who was actually in the audience with her family. Lastly in this sorry catalogue of error, a nine year old who had attempted suicide was invited to stand and say why he would never try it again.Let me reiterate. The organizers of the conference I am certain had nothing but the best of intentions, but there was a significant competency gap.

They had little or nothing to draw on in terms of past events of a similar nature, and had no previous experience themselves, and neither would the panelists (with the exception of an Australian in attendance) – it was Terra Incognita for all concerned. It also has to be said that the pool of people they could have consulted in Pakistan as to how to conduct such an event is also very small.

Whilst there is an emerging climate of disclosure in which children are now coming forward to speak of being abused, this is outstripping by far the capacity of social workers and therapists who need to respond to the children coming forward – a gap that is going to take years to bridge.

It is all too easy to criticise in hindsight. I was not at the conference and I have my reports second hand but from trusted sources who agree on the details outlined above. There has been some scathing criticism of the organisers in the media, none of it constructive as far as I can see. So how to move forward?Hanging the organisers out to dry takes us nowhere.

But asking them to reflect on the event and perhaps give it a re-run in six months time but with a revised format, and without a range of victims and survivors being paraded like performing animals.

Use the event as a launch-pad for inter-agency working groups made up of government, NGO and private sector to map out a response to the NAP proposals and put flesh on the bones.

Set up a small coordinating body to oversee proceedings and who knows…Pakistan might just be able to formulate an effective policy that reads across agencies to mitigate the curse of child sexual abuse. The challenge will span a generation. Give me a call…I’ll help.