Zainab’s murder — fodder for opportunist political elites and media

LAHORE, PUNJAB, PAKISTAN - 2018/01/14: Pakistani Activists of Cecil Chaudhry and Iris Foundation (CCIF) holding placards chant slogans to protest the rape and murder of seven year old Zainab Ansari in Kasur District at Liberty Chowk in Lahore on January 14, 2018. Hundreds of protesters enraged over the murder of a young girl threw stones at government buildings in a Pakistani city near the Indian border for a second day January 11, amid growing outrage over the killing. (Photo by Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Raza Rumi

The brutal rape and murder of 8-year-old Zainab was a tragedy that should have been a wake up call for the country and how we raise children at homes, schools and madaris. Instead, it has turned into a sordid game for political elites and a rating contest for mainstream electronic media. Once again, a historic opportunity for reform has been squandered.

When Zainab’s story came into public light, every Pakistani was horrified especially those who are parenting young children. That sexual abuse of children is a part of people’s lives came as an ugly reminder. Celebrities opened up in public arenas recounting the horrors of being abused as children. Earlier, the Kasur child pornography scandal shook the public in a similar fashion but nothing came out of it in terms of setting things right. One hoped that with the outrage and protest over Zainab’s murder things would turn out to be different.

But they didn’t.

For starters, the political opposition narrowed down the curse of child abuse to the person of Shehbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab and his party that is in power. There is no question that Sharifs cannot escape some level of responsibility but to frame the entire issue in such a manner made a mockery of many an elephant in the room — repressed sexuality, ineffective child protection, lack of sex education at homes and outside and the culture of silence that overshadows such ghastly realities.

For instance, according to Sahil – a nongovernmental organisation – in 2016 a total of 4139 of sexual abuse were reported in newspapers, which was a 10 percent increase since 2015. 23 percent cases entailed rape or sodomy. In short, 11 children were abused per day and imagine how many cases go unreported. This is nothing short of an epidemic. Once we unpack this data the reality is even more horrifying. 271 children were gang raped in 2016. And, at least a 100 were murdered. It doesn’t end here. 176 child marriages were also reported in 2016. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Organised gangs have been involved in production of child pornography and all of this happens in a context of weak law enforcement and widespread corruption in the justice system.

Zainab’s case once again reminded Pakistanis of this widespread curse. From 2011 to 2016 a total of 19,508 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the country. This is where the media could have played a constructive role. Instead, mainstream media covered the Zainab story while ignoring all ethics of journalism. Zainab’s parents were blamed for their negligence, his brother was scolded for not protecting his sister and the list goes on. A bereaved family found itself in the midst of rating sharks coping with an uninvited onslaught. The images of dead Zainab have only brutalised us and not helped the cause for child protection.

The machinery of law was set into motion for this was a test case for PMLN in the election year braving a hostile establishment and aggressive media that would rather call for Sharifs to be hanged for their negligence. So the killer was discovered based on DNA samples. The fanfare with which the identity of the alleged murderer was announced was distasteful to say the least. Indeed, the Punjab police did its job but those present at the press conference clapped as if the younger Sharif’s government had fixed all the legal problems afflicting the largest province.

The reality is far from the applause that was aired on television channels. The Punjab police is known for its inefficiencies, corruption and more so for the politicisation it has undergone over the years. Police encounters have been a popular method of ‘law enforcement’ reportedly assented by none other than the chief executive of the province.

But then PMLN that should have been hit harder, delivered on the populist cause. This was followed by irresponsible and fake claims of the accused owning multiple bank accounts, of being part of a transnational gang with powerful persons from PMLN involved in it. At least that is what certain zealous media persons wanted us to believe. The State Bank of Pakistan rubbished these claims but the damage had been done.

Once again, sexual abuse of children was not happening due to the warts in our society and socialization but due to the evil PMLN, the ‘outsiders’ and for monetary rewards. A public discussion about sex education was avoided. In lieu of a proper policy debate, we heard calls for public hangings by legislators as if that would solve the endemic issue at hand. Public floggings and hangings were experimented by Gen Zia’s odious rule in 1980s with no impact on the crime rates.

Zainab’s father could not help air his prejudice against an Ahmadi heading the joint investigation team. It is a pity that the alleged serial killer and his daughter’s murderer is a Muslim and that too a devout one as far as the rituals go.  He is reportedly a follower of religious fanatics who organized a sit-in last November against the government and were supported by elements within the state.

This is the time for legislators to strengthen laws on child protection, admit that there is a larger problem at hand. Sex education is not a taboo, as children need to be made aware of the dangers they face. More importantly, it is also the time to acknowledge that sexual repression may be playing havoc with the minds of many young men. Above all it is time to think of a safer and healthier society. Political shenanigans, bloodthirsty vengeance and fake news have only derailed this critical debate.

The writer is editor, Daily Times and member IPI advisory board.


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