Destigmatizing Sexual Assault Conversations in Pakistan

On 7 September 2020, a woman was gang-raped in front of her children on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway. The incident sparked a public outrage amongst the populace of Pakistan, with calls for public hangings. Though initially the conviction process was drenched in victim-blaming and incompetence, recently, the Lahore anti-terrorism court (ATC) sentenced the abusers to death and life imprisonment. Yet, little influence has been witnessed in the sexual assault ratio of Pakistan, since deterioration in cases has not been observed. Proving how, despite calls of public-hangings, the womenfolk of Pakistan is unsafe.

The uncanny essence of Pakistani society is that women are under the consistent menace of sexual assault, yet there is a persistent disgrace affiliated with initiating conversations penetrating towards its prevention. The traces of this stigma can be associated with misinterpreting religious texts and deep-rooted exploitative cultural norms. However, there is a critical need for destigmatizing sexual assault conversations; as prevention-orientated strategies can be discussed and implemented by adolescent females. With ignorance on such topics, they are subject to predators cashing on their vulnerability and absence of awareness.

Pakistan emerged on the grounds of providing Muslims and remaining deprived minorities of British India with a homeland, that would embark upon their fundamental human rights. Despite these critical obligations, unfortunately, the state of Pakistan has floundered to shelter its female adolescent population against sexual assault. Thus, undermining their human rights. According to Sahil’s 2019 annual report, approximately 10 children are sexually assaulted in Pakistan on a daily basis. In addition, it was acquired that 22,000 cases of child sexual abuse have been reported in the last 6 years. Scarily enough, these statistics are unrepresentative of Pakistan’s legitimate sexual abuse ratio. Since, thousands of cases go unreported due to factors such as victim-blaming, police corruption, and societal pressure. Henceforth, it is acute to take substantive measures for the creation of a safer environment for the youth of Pakistan.

The harsh reality is that; harassment threats directly challenge the potential of young Pakistani girls. Numerous individuals refuse to procure education and execute jobs due to the realm of harassment possibility; as, harassers can linger in the form of professors, employers, religious teachers, and numerous other possibilities. With that said, changing the mindset of a conservative society, and educating potential rapists can be a slow and gradual process. Public hangings are exceedingly inefficient too, there is underreporting of data, and police corruption prevails widely. Henceforth, it is crucial to generate preventive conversations with adolescents at a young age. The fact of the matter is that children can encounter predators in any form and at any point in their life span. As a result, they should be trained to identify predators, speak up, and take the necessary action against them. Since corresponding propositions are principally stigmatized in Pakistani society by extremist religious scholars, their incorporation in the school syllabus is highly unlikely. Thus, they should be introduced at every house level by the parents or guardians of the respected individuals.

As a part of this process, young girls should be presented with the notion of the “bad touch”. Accordingly, they should be taught to contact their parents following encountering an inappropriate touch. It should also be established in their minds that, such actions can be undertaken by anyone, including relatives, house servants, teachers, and religious teachers. Adding on, adolescent females should be empowered and granted the power to say “no” to inappropriate actions. This also includes respecting the individual’s will to not interact with specific family members, and not forcing them to do so. As it is likely that they undertook inappropriate conduct against the child in the parents’ or guardians’ absence. In addition to this, children are often threatened into secret-keeping from their families by predators. Accordingly, parents or guardians should establish certain ground rules, due to which the child will be bound to share every slight detail and encounter with them, even if the information is disguised as a secret by someone. With that said, under the context of Pakistan, adolescent females carry fears regarding sharing information on such topics with members of their family. The associated reason is the taboo against sexual assault, and fears regarding victim-blaming by their own family. Therefore, it should be affirmed that the adolescents will not be encountered with trouble for sharing such information. Lastly, parents should make a point to listen to their children when they are approached by them. In fact, they should be showered with complete attention and their concerns should be engaged with seriously. Consequently, adolescent females will acquire the concept that their voices are being heard, and will be more likely to seek help while encountering sexual assault attempts.

The motorway rape incident, Zainab Amin Ansari’s case, and countless other encounters of rape still haunt the people of Pakistan. Despite public outrages and the public hanging of Zainab’s abuser, no significant decline was identified in the sexual abuse ratio of the state. Similarly, little change is expected with the public hanging of the motorway convicts too. Countless girls are molested on a daily basis; yet, little action is undertaken by the government of Pakistan. As a result, it is essential for the population to take matters into their own hands and introduce prevention-orientated conversations with their children. At the end of the day, it all comes down to awareness. Education on such topics allows adolescent females to identify molestation attempts and take actions to ensure their safety.

However, with that said, it is also crucial to have such conversations with the male population of Pakistan at a young age. In this manner, the development of potential molesters can be prevented and our female population can be protected. Conversely, although altering the wide-ranging mindset is a challenging and time-consuming process, initiation paves the path towards attaining that ultimate goal. Henceforth, in order to ensure substantial change, there is a dire need for destigmatizing sexual assault conversations at all levels of Pakistani society. Surely, Pakistan will experience better days with respect to its alarmingly high sexual assault ratio; however, a collective effort is critical to achieving that milestone.

Tamseel Aqdas
Tamseel Aqdas
Undergraduate student of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University Islamabad