Pakistan’s code of silence a nurturing ground for child abuse cycle

  • Child psychologist says effects of abuse can be permanent
  • Brain samples from adults who died by suicide and had a history of child abuse show abnormalities in brain cells

LAHORE: On January 4, 2018, seven-year-old Zainab Ansari was on her way to tuition when she was abducted, raped and murdered by a neighbour; 24-year old Imran Ali. Sparked by anger, mass protests swept throughout the country.

Child abuse has been one of Pakistan’s most daunting challenges. Yet, after each incident of child abuse, countrywide debates on all platforms are conclusive of the government’s slipshod attitude in implanting and executing relevant laws. One crucial aspect absent from the discussion is the cause and effect society’s silence has on child abuse, especially child molestation.

In a recent TV show, activist and television host Muniba Mazari delved into the reverberations of child abuse. Her guests, prominent media personalities Frieha Altaf and Nadia Jamil, journalist Hamza Rao and Child Protection NGO Sahil’s Executive Director Dr Manizeh Bano deconstructed narratives of childhood sexual abuse and the shadow of trauma.

Nadia Jamil had spoken about her ordeal before her interaction with Mazari. She was abused at the age of four by her qari sahib (Quran teacher).

“I became an unusually quite person, jittery all the time. It was only with my family’s support and willingness to speak about it that I was able to find my voice back,” she said in response to a question by Mazari.

“I was sexually abused by our cook at age 6. My parents took action but everyone remained silent. At 34, I realised how it had impacted my life,” said Frieha Altaf.

Talking about the incident that affected him, Hamza said, “I was eight years old when a very close friend of my father took advantage of me. There was no discussion or awareness of the matter in my house and I fell into a cycle of self-hate and shame.”

While talking to Pakistan Today, Hamza elaborates further, “I withdrew from society; I developed defence mechanisms, disassociated from fellow males, preferred to stay indoors and eventually resigned to homeschooling.”

Victims of abuse experience shock and distress that result in both neurological and physiological changes.

It is incorrect that the damaging effects of abuse in childhood are outgrown with age.

“The effects of abuse are permanent if suffered by and after the age of 5 to 6 years as the child is fully conscious by that age. The most common and widespread repercussion is that the child grows up to become abusive in a vengeful state of mind,” explains Child Psychologist Dr Areesha Asher.

This statement would make a lot of sense to those who read the Daily Times article “Psychopathology of a serial killer” written by Psychiatrist Aamer Sarfraz.

“Zainab’s rapist Imran Ali, who had always been fascinated by naqabat, would frequently go in search of naqeebs (hymn singers) who could teach him the verses and the associated art of singing. He got increasingly frustrated as they avoided him with excuses and had no means to pay for their service. This is when he got raped for the first time, in exchange for access to a naqeeb,” reads an excerpt from the article.

“Imran’s frustration with his lack of progress in a naqabat career grew over the years along with the sexual abuse he had suffered as its price. After puberty, he becomes a fringe member of this group who now trapped other victims,” it adds.

According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, “Child abuse leaves lasting marks on the brain at the cellular level thus impacting brain connectivity. An analysis of brain samples from adults who died by suicide and had a history of child abuse showed these abnormalities to be common among all victims. This could explain why people who suffer abuse as children are vulnerable to depression and other psychiatric conditions later in life.”

“The impact is stronger when the abuse is inflicted by those close to the child, especially with sexual abuse. The child’s personality takes the shape of a cocoon; interactions become difficult as they don’t trust anyone. Later in life, they suffer problems in all spheres of life,” Dr Areesha further explained.

According to Sahil, around 2,410 girls and 1,729 boys were sexually exploited in 2016-2017. The numbers are not as appalling as the fact that 34 per cent of these cases transpired in closed spaces and households, at the hands of people close to the families.

The brave survivors on Mazari’s show were rare cases. Their journey to recovery took years and probably felt like aeons. This exemplifies the poor level of awareness and sex education we are provided and have access to.

In response to Zainab Ansari’s brutal rape and killing, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JI) Senator Hafiz Hamdullah, said, “If the western version of sex education is allowed in schools, it will further aggravate the situation. We will even resist its implementation if any such step is taken.”

It is vital to know that abuse does not make distinctions between socioeconomic classes, religion, culture or education levels.

Our national debate needs to highlight the urgent need to address the issue of child abuse through communication and self-help as opposed to dependency on the government. Pakistan without a doubt needs child-friendly legal aid; a law that requires the state to pay for abused children’s legal aid, as well as proper legislation to indict the perpetrators. Not only that, ease of access to therapy needs to be one of the options available to victims of abuse.

However, until that glorious day dawns upon us, we ourselves are responsible for effective dialogue to achieve results on sexual education even if means opposition by the custodians of our religion.