With Zainab gone, Pakistan breaks a taboo.

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  • The country finally opens up on a hushed matter

The Los Angeles Times reports that at the end of last year, China was rocked by multiple kindergarten abuse scandals. Details involving sleeping pills and suspicious health check-ups triggered a rare, national outpouring of public rage. Many Chinese wondered how the abuse could be prevented. Owing partly to long-held cultural taboos around sex and reproduction, China has no nationwide sexual education curriculum. As a result, sex education varies widely from school to school, mostly by NGOs, with many students receiving no education at all. This is despite the country’s cabinet instructing schools to include lessons on sex and reproduction in the compulsory curriculum. In a society with limited trust in public institutions, parents appear to have come to the conclusion that ‘If you can’t eliminate sexual abuse, better to avoid it’ and are increasing indulging in self-help books and other materials.

A case from a different country with a different culture rings a bell here in Pakistan. For a recent incident of a seven year old girl abused and murdered has triggered the nation into a rare show of unity and urgency to solve a matter horribly afflicting its society. It has raised many questions about security and well-being of its children and matters relating to legislation. But most importantly, the tragic case has forced the country to open up about a topic previously sidelined.

With sex being a taboo subject, sex education in schools – a common concept in the West – is still a much debated topic in Pakistan. In a recent interview with Pakistan Today, Senator Hafiz Hamdullah belonging to a far right political party ‘categorically denied his support to the issue of imparting sex education to children in schools.’

The Punjab government has decided to introduce child protection curriculum in every educational institute of the province, including supplementary material based on injunctions of the Holy Quran

‘We need to make our children aware of the dangers that they can face, this awareness needs to be given in schools, colleges even madrassas,’ the senator said. ‘But if you want our support for the western version of sex education to be allowed in schools, we oppose the notion as it will aggravate the situation even more,’ Hafiz Hamdullah had added.

In 2014, the government forced an elite private school in Lahore to remove all sex education from its curriculum. ‘It is against our constitution and religion,’ the then president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, Mirza Kashif Ali, had said. Yet in the same year, teachers operating in eight local schools run by a local organisation in Johi, a village in Pakistan’s southern province Sindh, started conducting classes of sex education to their students. Their lessons — starting at age eight — covered changes in their bodies, what their rights are and how to protect themselves. Although bound by traditions and having relatively lower rate of illiteracy, none of the villagers had any objection.

With 1,764 cases of child abuse reported in the country in the first six months of 2017, and more than 4,000 such cases recorded a year earlier, the gravity of the situation seems to be now sinking in. When seven year old Zainab was brutally abused and murdered in Kasur early this year and her fragile dead body was heartlessly left in a heap of garbage, hers was the 12th case of sexual abuse of a child reported from within a two-kilometre radius of the city in the past 12 months, while a total of 129 cases of child assault were reported from Kasur in the same period.

While the lethargic and indifferent attitude by the police raised questions about its system and prompted a suo moto notice by the apex court, Zainab’s tragic case resulted in a debate among lawmakers and intellectuals of the country over the harshness of punishment for such incidents. What it also did, was encourage an acceptance to the idea of creating awareness among children and adults about the physical well-being of themselves and others.

The Punjab government has decided to introduce child protection curriculum in every educational institute of the province, including supplementary material based on injunctions of the Holy Quran. The provincial government recently launched a 24-point booklet Pakeza Zindagi regarding safety of children to be distributed among teachers and parents. Sindh has also stepped up to try and spread awareness among children by working on campaigns on child sexual abuse so that they can be part of the school curriculum in the province.

Daheem Din, a marriage and family therapist based in Lahore, while backing the steps taken by the provincial governments, urges a need for interactive sex education lessons. ‘You set a precedent by talking about your bodies. You are basically opening a space that it’s alright to talk about it. What that would do is that if one creates a healthy image about oneself and the opposite gender, the curiosity among children settles down, it helps them deal with adolescence and leads them to be respectful about themselves and the physical being of others.’

Religious scholars are also trying to remove misconceptions that such an awareness maybe against the divine injunctions. ‘Sex education was always a part of the Islamic curriculum,’ points out Dr Shehzad Saleem, vice president of Al-Madrid, a foundation for Islamic research and education. ‘It is actually the manner in which children are taught about these issues that is important. For example 4-5 year olds should be told what to do if someone touches or fondles them. With adolescent children, apart from educating them about personal hygiene, they should be educated on sexual aberrations like pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality and other perversions,’ Dr Saleem explains.

While talking to the Express Tribune, Council of Islamic Ideology Chairman Dr Qibla Ayaz said that no doubt including sexual education in curriculum will be a positive step while considering the gravity of the situation.

In another step which proves to be rather timely for Pakistan, United Nations bodies have issued a revised technical guidance on sexuality education ‘with an aim to enable concerned authorities to design comprehensive curricula that will have a positive impact on young people’s health and wellbeing. The revised version is a framework based on international best practices as well as latest scientific evidence and is designed to support countries to implement effective sexuality education programmes adapted to their contexts’.

Most experts agree that sex education should start from homes, for which parents need to be educated themselves. ‘Parents should be given skills as to how to open up to their children,’ says Daheem Din. ‘They should be given pictures, simplified instructions. Small group activity based interactions where children are a part, including role play and art work would be beneficial.’ Daheem agrees that the task becomes particularly challenging in rural areas due to absence of organised structures and for that she suggests detailed verbal interactions. ‘It’s a conversation that needs to happen again and again. Small workshops can be held where both parents and children can be called, so that a wholesome approach is made,’ she says.

Moreover, all institutions – educational and religious – are expected to play a vital role in this process. ‘In schools, ethics and morals should be taught the foremost so that they become better human beings before becoming better Muslims,’ urges Dr Shehzad Saleem. ‘Mosques should also play the role of inculcating morality among the masses. Clerics should be told to grant ample space in their sermons to the teaching of morality instead of some of the petty issues they generally harp on.’

A step in the right direction, taken at the right time, does give positive results. With a consensus developing in the nation, acceptance to open up on issues and making futuristic moves will no doubt be beneficial. The steps cannot bring back Zainab, but they can help provide a safer environment to others like her in present and more to come in the future.