Coping with childhood sexual abuse

Every day in Pakistan, stories of sexual abuse, rape and assault are reported in the media

Mazhar Abbas
Every day in Pakistan, stories of sexual abuse, rape and assault are reported in the media. Photo: File 

She was only 13-years-old when a close relative sexually abused her. Ten years later, in a cruel twist of fate, the same man sent a marriage proposal to her mother. The time had come, she thought, to break her silence. So, she sat her family down to detail the most horrifying experience of her life. When she finished, her family didn’t comfort her, or grieve with her, insisted they asked her to forget the past and marry her abuser.

The victim and the abuser are now husband and wife. There are nights, she tells me, that she still wakes up to panic and nightmares. Unable to turn to anyone, she is now seeking professional counselling.

Every day in Pakistan, stories of sexual abuse, rape and assault are reported in the media. Victim blaming is one reason why families and young women refuse to report their cases to the media or the police, forcing these women to struggle on their own with PTSD, anxiety and depression.

On Sunday, the daily DAWN published an alarming story of a four-year-old girl who was subjected to sexual assault and molestation. The child is now undergoing treatment at a local hospital. In many such cases, the victim and family remain in state of denial in order to protect their ‘honour’.

“Sexually abusing a child - boy or girl - is not just a crime but a disease as well,” explained a prominent psychiatrist in Karachi, who has treated many patients, both victims and abusers. “Individuals who have engaged in such practices, or are abusers, rarely have any desire for therapy. Here the role of the therapist is very important.”

There are cases when a person who has been abused as a child later becomes an abuser himself. “Such people sometimes come for treatment to me after they have children of their own,” added the psychiatrist.

Abusers who seek counselling often exhibit signs of aggression and violent behaviour. “One abuser, who regretted what he did to young children, came for treatment,” the psychiatrist told me, “He confessed only after his son was born, which led to him realize how he had affected the lives of children he sexually abused.”

At the moment, there is no official data on the number of victims and abusers who are seeking professional help. But the majority of those undergoing treatment are the victims, as opposed to the abusers.

Separately, at the government level, there have been some attempts to legislate on the rising number of crimes against children. After seven-year-old Zainab was found raped and killed in Kasur, a leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) submitted the Zainab Alert Bill in the national assembly to tighten Pakistan’s legislation to protect young children. In April, renamed the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act, 2019, the bill was finally tabled in the house and sent to the standing committee on human rights, where it is still pending approval.

But therapists, I spoke to, insist that merely enhancing punishments for abusers and culprits is not enough. These men should undergo proper treatment while in prison and during the trial period. “In the past, we requested the government to appoint a psychiatrist and therapist to work with such people in jails,” said a Karachi-based therapist.

Prisons in itself are considered a dangerous place for young and underage prisoners who are subjected to sexual abuse and rape by adult inmates. In 2003, close to 60 children were recovered from adult prisoners’ cells during a raid of a jail in Hyderabad.

Although young girls are more commonly targeted by abusers, boys too are subjected to molestation due to their easy accessibility and social interaction, said the therapist. Parents who allow their home help and drivers to drop and pick their children from schools also make their children more vulnerable to such occurrences.

Child sexual abuse is not just a crime it is also a disease, which can only be addressed with proper treatment. Here, the role of the parents is equally important to alert and educate their children about possible dangers from relatives and strangers.

While the government’s initiative to introduce the Zainab Act needs to be appreciated an awareness campaign must be launched to educate the society about this crime and for the protection of children.

In 2011, Sindh passed the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, yet cases of abuse continue to make headlines in the province. Simply passing a law is not enough, this time, it will have to be implemented to root out this menace.

Abbas is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO