Sidra Bibi*was a young girl living with her parents and siblings in the Pakistani city of Lahore when she suffered sexual abuse, and the trauma has lived with her over the years.
“My mother, my father, my aunts and my uncles all connived to protect my paternal grandfather, who was abusing me, my sister and our female cousins since we were six or seven years old,” Sidra, now 30 and married, told IRIN. The grandfather, she added, asked the girls to masturbate him, then committed anal penetration on Sidra and her cousin.
“We were asked to keep quiet as the truth would destroy the family,” said Sidra, who is certain the matter was discussed among the adults in the family, but no action taken as “my grandfather was a respected elder”. Sidra has also never told her husband what she experienced, but says she is “very protective” of her own small daughter.
Sidra is just one victim. According to media reports, sexual abuse is not uncommon in Pakistan and ranges from harassment to incest.
Some traditional leaders, however, deny that sexual abuse happens. “Look, these things don’t happen here. It is all Western propaganda. Muslim women here are safe at home, and I always advise people to ensure their daughters, wives and sisters stay home - except for school, or maybe to visit a close relative. They are unsafe beyond their homes,” said Maulvi Abdul Haq, a prayer leader at a local mosque.
However, Sahil, an anti-child abuse NGO based in the capital Islamabad, says 2,303 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the national press in 2011, including 56 cases of incest.
Saad Ahmed Khan, programme officer (media) for Sahil, told IRIN: “Even now, this is an issue people cover up because of the social stigma and pressures involved… We are certain many, many more cases occur than are reported, sometimes because they occur in remote areas where the media cannot reach, and in other cases because people prefer not to speak out."
Aliya Abbas, a head teacher at a private school in Lahore, recalled a seven-year-old pupil who complained about sexual abuse inflicted by her older brother. “Her mother insisted the child was lying, and when I told her there were signs of abuse in terms of her behaviour, she removed her from my school. I often wonder how that child has fared and if she ever spoke of her experience again,” he said.
Experts say the effect of this forced silence can be traumatic. “Sexual abuse, especially incest, can leave very deep scars - even though these may on the surface be invisible,” Ghazala Sumair, a psychiatrist, told IRIN. “I have treated traumatized adult women, who are unable to articulate what happened to them even 20-30 years after the incest they suffered. This bottling up of a deeply emotional event just makes matters worse.”
“I have never spoken to anyone about what happened. Even my mother never mentions it. The events were too shameful," said Sidra.
Obstacles to justice
In 2011, a study by the international human rights monitoring NGO Equality Now!, found that victims of sexual violence faced “numerous obstacles in their pursuit of justice”.
The study said the police, medical examiners and others were reluctant to believe stories about incest, which means even those who report cases struggle to obtain support. "Societal stigma presents obstacles at the family and community level as well as the justice system," the study noted.
"To be associated with such a crime is considered a source of shame, and families cover up the incident to protect themselves. Upon trying to seek justice rape victims are often treated in a dismissive manner, accused of lying or having somehow brought the crime upon themselves."
Pakistan, according to the UN Childrens’s Fund (UNICEF), has the second largest number of out-of-school children in any country - nearly 25 million. Of these, seven million are of primary school-age and 60 percent are girls.
*not her real name