Child sexual assaults unacceptable - NGO

A child rights' watchdog reports that at least 1,218 children were sexually abused in the first nine months of this year. Having monitored 27 national newspapers to collect data on child sex abuse, the NGO Sahil said 34 girls and 13 boys were murdered after being sexually assaulted.

Sexual abuse of children has been defined as inappropriate sexual contact with a child, where the abused child is used as an object of sexual gratification.

The NGO's report said 197 girls were raped and 105 boys sodomised. "Both boys and girls up to the age of 10 were equally vulnerable to sexual abuse," said the report, which showed that 93 girls and 59 boys up to that age were sexually abused between January and September 2004.

It said that most of the abused children were in the 11-15 age bracket.

Acquaintances are more involved in committing this crime against children, as the report found the involvement of 1,525 acquaintances in child sex cases. It said: "About 458 strangers and 190 female abettors were involved in this crime."

The report finds no place safe for children, as 434 cases of sexual abuse occurred at the acquaintances' homes and 176 at the victim's homes. "Child sexual abuse was done at hotels, mosques, churches, workshops, jungles, streets and fields," it said.

In 2003, some 1,826 cases of sexual abuse against children - 975 boys and 851 girls - were reported to the police, a marked increase from the 679 cases reported in 2002.

However, experts believe that child sex abuse is under-reported because it is seen as an acutely sensitive subject.

Mona Koser, a sociologist, who has done research on child abuse, told IRIN that it was difficult for her to find accurate data because people were reluctant even to respond to introductory questions.

"Child abuse is on the rise because of a lack of parental attention and sex education," she said.

"There is a lot of repression of sexuality so this shows up in unhealthy forms. You rarely find healthy expressions of sexuality in everyday life [in Pakistan] so sexual abuse becomes very common," clinical psychologist Liaqat Tabssum told IRIN.

Zia Awan, president of the NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, told IRIN that the government should generate the political will to implement effectively its international commitments subsequent to its 1990 ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The states party to the convention must critically examine existing national legislation to ensure that children are protected against "all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment, exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents, legal guardians or any other person who has care of the child".

The government is starting to recognise the issue. The chief minister of Punjab province, Pervaiz Elahi, ordered the suspension of four senior policemen over failures in a rape case involving five young girls in the town of Tehsil Gojra, west of Lahore. The girls are aged between five and seven. Elahi said that proceedings should be started to dismiss the officers.

No-one has been charged with the rapes but one suspect is in custody.

Ashfa Riaz, the Punjab minister for Human Rights and Women Development, told IRIN that sexual exploitation of children was a social taboo and that people needed to overcome their hesitation in admitting its existence or talking about it. "It's time society debated the more horrifying aspects."

A Pakistani minister earlier this month cited hundreds of cases of alleged child sex abuse at Islamic schools, or madrasas. There were 500 complaints this year of abuse allegedly committed by clerics, Aamer Liaquat Hussain, a minister in the religious affairs department, said.

The minister's revelations sparked death threats and infuriated some religious leaders. However, he added that the Federation of Madrasas was willing to cooperate with investigations because some clerics were giving Islam a bad name.

Only a handful of organisations are helping children at risk of being exploited and abused.

One of them is the NGO Sahil. It is tapping the media to raise responsiveness on the issue in the prevention, protection and intervention of child sex abuse, which is shrouded in darkness and silence due to society's cultural taboos.

Sahil Executive Director Manizeh Bano said at the launch of the report that child abuse would continue to rise unless citizens were educated about it.