Although Tariq is only 12 years old, his unhappy experiences could fill a lifetime. After losing his father in a rocket attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul, he fled to Pakistan with his mother and three sisters. Settling in the slum area of Pir Wadhai, a major bus station between Rawalpindi and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, the poverty-stricken family joined thousands of other Afghan families living on the brink of what many have described as "a living hell": a marginalised life in which desperation and abuse go hand in hand. More disturbing, however, is that Tariq, like many children in the Pir Wadhai area, is the victim of sexual abuse - a Pandora's box that most Pakistanis are not ready to open.
One of the main problems in tackling child sexual abuse is getting acknowledgement of its existence but, for most Pakistanis, this is a taboo subject. "We live in a country where people find talking about sex and sexuality shameful. Good people simply don't want to talk about it, which of course provides a dilemma ripe for denial," said Dr Tufail Mohammad Khan of the Child Rights and Abuse Committee in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Denial is only part of the issue, however: the very term child sexual abuse lacks clarity in Pakistan. Asked to define what he meant by it, Dr Khan said there were many forms, including kissing, touching, fondling, exhibitionism and voyeurism, as well as the more severe forms which included oral sex, rape and sodomy. However, the average Pakistani tended to include only the latter forms, where sexual penetration takes place, he said.
'Confronting Reality', a report from last year on the sexual exploitation and abuse of children in Pakistan by the Child Rights and Abuse Committee and Save the Children (Sweden), suggested that this could be due to a lack of awareness regarding the psychological effects of molestation. More disturbing was the feeling that maybe these other forms of abuse were not considered serious crimes but an accepted part of daily life in Pakistan, the report stated.
Additionally problematic, it said, was that there was no universally accepted age to prescribe when a child was responsible for his or her actions. Under the Pakistan Penal Code, police consider anyone over 12 years of age to be an adult, fully responsible for his or her actions, while other parties believe this to coincide with the onset of puberty, it said.
The national survey stressed that attempts to quantify the problem of child sexual have proved difficult. Sahil, an NGO working exclusively in this area, said that from 1997 to 1999, the print media reported 2,309 cases in the country. This number was only a fraction of the total number of incidents because, with sexual abuse linked to family honour, most cases went unreported to the police and subsequently by newspapers, it said.
Sahil found that 65 percent of cases involved female victims. One explanation offered for this was that girls - more so than boys - were seen as sex objects, and were also more vulnerable. At the same time, females are 'dishonoured' by men in Pakistan as a means of settling scores; newspapers have reported numerous incidents of rape and gang rape for precisely this reason.
On the other hand, according to Sahil, more boys than girls are murdered after incidents of sexual abuse. Since boys are not stigmatised by the honour principle, abusers fear that they are more likely to disclose sexual abuse, it said.
People in Pakistan are surprisingly tolerant of some forms of child sexual abuse, and male child prostitution is not only tolerated but seen as a status symbol in some parts of the country, according to the report 'Confronting Reality'. Pir Wadhai bus station in Rawalpindi - an area of open sewers and hundreds of small restaurants, hotels, vegetable stands and workshops, home to poor and marginalised Pakistanis as well as thousands of Afghan refugees - is notorious as a centre of child sexual abuse. The district is awash with children and, given Pakistan's poor economic situation, children are often employed as cheap labour or in child prostitution.
In the Urdu language, the word 'sach' means truth, and the Pakistani nongovernmental organisation SACH is demanding just that. SACH has been working since 1993 for the rehabilitation and reintegration of the survivors of organised torture and violence. It is particularly well known for assisting abused and neglected children in and around the Pir Wadhai bus terminal area.
"We noticed the situation of children in this area, among them the Afghan refugee children, was particularly bleak," said Khalida Salimi, director of SACH.
Partially funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), SACH maintains nine schools in the area and provides educational opportunities for some 600 children. Seventy percent of its students are Afghan refugees, a particularly vulnerable group, ranging from three to 16 years of age. Children in the centres have been exposed to varying forms of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
There is no age limit when it comes to child sexual abuse and eight-year-old Ramin [name changed by IRIN] in a SACH community school near Pir Wadhai is a sad example of its effects on young lives. One of eight children, Ramin is an Afghan refugee, despite the fact that he was born in Pakistan. Ramin works as a trash collector to subsidise his father's meagre earnings in a shoe factory. He told IRIN, through a school psychologist, how he was molested at knifepoint, an act which later became a recurring event in his life. "First I used to call these people bad names but later I received money from them, so then it was okay." Ramin said he typically received between 10 and 15 rupees [slightly more than US 15 cents] in exchange for sex. "Sometimes I received money, sometimes I didn't," he said.
Ramin has been enrolled at the SACH community school for one year but many boys in Pir Wadhai are not so lucky and remain on the street, easy prey for potential abusers and exposed to sexually transmitted diseases. According to Salimi, what is happening in and around hundreds of small hotels, workshops and vegetable stalls around Pir Wadhai is unique. "This place is notorious for child abuse but it is completely hidden, making it all the more difficult to deal with. On one level nothing is happening; on another, everything," she said.
"There is no single child who is formally employed as a sex worker here. There is always a cover story," she added. "The boys, some runaways, some simply impoverished,are 'invited' by the owners of the hotels where they are employed to attract customers for the night. They get a small salary in return for this but their real job is to offer their bodies as well."
Being a bus station, Pir Wadhai has a steady flow of traders, drivers and soldiers from all parts of Pakistan, many of whom come to these hotels with the explicit intention of sexually abusing these boys anonymously, Salimi said. "Although they are not paid as sexual workers, they are being used as such ... The boys in the hotel range from nine to 16 years of age and, in the vegetable markets, they are even younger," she added.
"There are special words and special clothing... everything is special to attract these type of guests to the hotels," according to Salimi. Many of the young boys wear Surma, a traditional [and toxic] lead-based eye make-up, to highlight their appearance while others wear decorative tassels at the ends of rope holding up their pants. "When a person sees the end of that rope, one side longer than the other, and it is beautiful... it shows that the boy is available," she said.
One boy interviewed by SACH said he ran away to his sister's house after he was first sexually abused. The same night he was sexually abused by his brother-in-law, in whom he had confided. The boy returned to Pir Wadhai, to work. "Now I am settled in Rawalpindi and comfortable with my work. Don't waste your time on us, if you really want to do something, try to help the new innocent boys that are arriving now," he told the interviewer.
Another, cited in a SACH survey of Pir Wadhai's hotels, said he sometimes serviced up to 10 clients per night. "Oh please, whatever you want to do with me, do it... But be quick, I'm in a hurry!" was the reaction of another child.
Not all the boys work in hotels. Many boys are abused by their employers at vegetable stands, or in the many workshops and garages in the area where they work, sometimes for as little as US $10 per month. Since many of these boys are illegal residents and economically dependent on their employers, it is difficult for them to object or defend themselves. Sometimes abusers lure the children with sweets, toys and money; sometimes they use verbal threats and physical force.
There are different ways in which the abuse transpires but, according to those trying to combat it, pornographic material is often introduced in an attempt to make it seem normal to the child. "Sadly, some children incorporate the sexual abuse as part of the learning process of becoming a mechanic," said child psychologist Rukhsana Kausar. Some boys become accustomed to sexual activities in the workplace and later become abusers themselves, she added.
Police compliance is a major problem in Pir Wadhai and, when action is taken, it is often against the wrong party "Police are given backhanders to look the other way. All this is happening with their knowledge. How couldn't it?" said Khalida Salimi. "When I complained, the only action the police took was to round up all the kids and put them in jail, but not the employers nor the people that abused them."
"The official charge against these children is always theft, making no written mention of sexual abuse or prostitution, hence reinforcing official denial of the problem's existence," she added.
Asked to describe the problem in Pir Wadhai, one local policeman shrugged when he told IRIN: "There are a lot of dirty children here."
Official reaction has been mixed and denial of child sexual abuse is common among government officials. "When we submitted our research to the Pakistani government there was a big fuss. In terms of sexual abuse issues, there is complete denial which is why they didn't want us to talk about it publicly," Salimi said. However, the government is gradually beginning to understand the problem and initiate projects on its own, she added.
"Pakistan has ratified the UN convention on the Rights of the Child and is also a signatory to the Stockholm agenda and plan of action against sexual exploitation of children," said Mohammad Hassan Mangi, Director of the National Commission for Child Welfare and Development (NCCWD) in Islamabad. While admitting that the extent of child abuse was difficult to gauge due to under-reporting of the problem, he said Pakistan was addressing the issue in trying to fulfill its commitments to the UN convention.
The NCCWD, Ministry of Women's Development, Social Welfare and Special Education had formed a working group on child sexual abuse which reviewed current legislation and made several recommendations to combat the phenomenon, Mangi told IRIN. Under Islamic values and principles as well as under Pakistan's national laws, child sexual abuse was a criminal offence and strictly prohibited, he added.
While such rhetoric and initiatives are important, the issue requires a great deal more work, according to child rights workers. On Tuesday next (27 February), the NCCWD and other government officials as well as the Pakistan Pediatric Association, Save the Children (Sweden) and civil society activists plan to collaborate in developing a national policy and plan of action against child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.
"That is moving in the right direction but we need to have a very clear policy on a national level, including an explicit recognition of the problem and the concrete steps needed to be taken," said Dr Tufail Mohammed Khan. The move was significant because it was a step towards a plan of action that to protect children, recover and reintegrate victims and, importantly, encourage greater participation by civil society, he added.
At a broader level, the question remains whether Pakistan is ready to confront the realities of places like Pir Wadhai, and the issue of child sexual abuse.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions