Why did the equally devastating torture, rape and murder of eleven children previously not strike a chord? As far back as July 2017, the print media was reporting about the string of similar murders. Police had made the DNA connection. Why then, did the government and police not act faster to create awareness about a serial killer in our midst, preying on helpless little girls?
The nation was plunged into dismay and rage in early January, as it emerged that Zainab, a seven-year-old child, had been kidnapped, raped and murdered in the city of Kasur. Her body was dumped on a garbage heap, fuelling the anger that erupted nationwide. Within hours, the hashtag #JusticeForZainab started trending on social media and the airwaves echoed with fury.
The utter tragedy of Zainab’s needless, violent and traumatic death was highlighted when it emerged that she was not the first victim of such a brutal crime in the city of Kasur. For months, a serial rapist and murderer has been preying on children in Kasur and Zainab was the 12th victim. Police reports indicate that at least half of the murders are linked to the same perpetrator by DNA analysis of trace evidence recovered from the bodies of small children.
But this is not the first time Kasur has been in the eye of the storm. In 2015, it was reported that a criminal gang was involved in a massive paedophilia ring, dating back to 2006.
Reports surfaced that dozens of mostly male children, perhaps as many as 280 to 300, were raped or forced into performing sexual acts on camera, videos of which were being supplied to paedophilia and porn sites on the Internet. The criminal gang was also charged with extortion and blackmailing some families of the young children in the village of Hussain Khanwala.
In the first reaction from the provincial government, Pakistan Muslim League (N) minister Rana Sanaullah on August 8, 2015, stated that a government inquiry committee had concluded that no instance of child sex abuse had been reported. Sanaullah said that “reports to this effect surfaced after two parties involved in a land dispute registered “fake cases” against each other. This ludicrous statement was quickly dispelled by independent human rights investigators who took testimonies from several survivors and their families.
Despite the shoddy efforts at a murky cover-up, two men were eventually sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in the case. Initially, 17 people were arrested for complicity in the crime, of which 14 were members of one family, including the two men who were later convicted.
Nonetheless, suspicions remained that a powerful family, allegedly involved in the lucrative porn industry, feeding on the misery of the violently abused children, ensured that further investigations were dropped.
Tragically, the media and public lost interest in the case as Pakistan roiled from one political crisis into another. The psychological and physical scars of the abused children were ignored.
But Zainab’s brutal murder has re-ignited debate on multiple levels. Across the spectrum, politicians, actors and actresses, media professionals, hundreds of civil society activists and citizens nationwide have spoken up and taken to the streets to demand justice. The debate has also touched on the ethics and impact of the widespread use of Zainab’s photograph on the mainstream and social media. Did Zainab’s face ignite a visceral sense of wanting to protect a vulnerable child? Why did the equally devastating torture, rape and murder of eleven children previously not strike a chord? As far back as July 2017, the print media was reporting about the string of similar murders. Police had made the DNA connection. Why then, did the government and police not act faster to create awareness about a serial killer in our midst, preying on helpless little girls, and possibly a couple of young boys?
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Pakistan’s increasingly polarised society is quick to point fingers and make vicious judgments. Adult women hesitate to file rape charges fearing the backlash from the community. A little girl has no chance at all.
In a rare instance, several well-known women from the fashion and media industries have publicly spoken about being sexually abused as children. And it has blown the lid off the intensely stultifying environment. While there has been an outpouring of sympathy for the women who have spoken up, others have chosen to see this as yet another way of denying women public space. “This would not have happened if ‘namehrams’ were not allowed into the homes,” thundered one person on social media, without commenting on the fact that two of the women were four and six years old respectively when they were sexually assaulted. There is a critical need to open a profound and informed discussion about sexual violence in Pakistan. The culture of shaming and blaming the survivor is crippling. It is time for Pakistan to reject all forms of violence against women and children and also vulnerable men. Being a survivor of sexual abuse and violence is never the fault of the victim. If we continue to deny survivors the right to be heard and to get justice without being repeatedly assaulted by the system – starting from the insensitive police and medical investigation, to the media onslaught and into a weak judicial system – hundreds, nay thousands of survivors will continue to exist in pain and agony.
Arresting the serial rapist and killer, who snuffed out 12 precious lives including Zainab’s, will assuage our desire for justice and perhaps revenge. But stopping this serial killer will not ensure that it will not happen again and again.
Rape and murder are endemic across Pakistan. Rape survivors must be believed and respected.
They must be treated with gentleness and care. Otherwise, the only way a rape victim will be mourned is if she or he dies after being raped. Is that all we have to offer?