Hidden Victims: The Plight of Pakistan's Child Incest Survivors

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An alarming number of children, especially girls, are abused by older family members, who know that their country's legal system and social mores make it unlikely that they will be punished.

 

The slim woman I'll call Zoya is in her late 30s. She sits inside the home of her good friend, one of the very few people who she has trusted with a dark secret that has haunted her for years.

"It's a very difficult topic to talk about it's something very hard for me," she says.

Zoya's voice shakes at times. Dressed in a white shalwar kameez, her shoulder-length hair is pulled back. "My father had been abusing me since the time I was little kid." Tears roll down her face and she recalls the details of her abuse.

She was four when she first came to suspect that what was happening to her might not be normal. One day, "when everyone was sleeping, my father picked me up, took me to another room, undressed me," Zoya says. "I found myself lying in bed naked and I was frightened, I didn't understand why."

Later, Zoya tried to tell her mother.

"I said, 'Papa is taking me -- mama, papa is taking me at night to another room and he takes off my clothes and does things.'" Her mother answered, "Don't tell anybody." It's a common phrase for victims of sexual abuse in Pakistan to hear from their mothers.

Manizeh Bano, Executive Director of a Pakistan-based NGO called Sahil that works against child sexual abuse and exploitation, she says that the country's harsh gender restrictions makes it difficult for mothers to protect their own children. "It is the most difficult because mothers don't have options, they often have to live within that same family, they can't get up and go anywhere," she says.

Cases like Zoya's aren't uncommon, according to Bano, and lack of support that exists for women in Pakistan makes them often unable to help their daughters get out of the situation. In Pakistan most families are still overwhelmingly financially supported by men. Bano says that if a mother learns that her husband is sexually molesting her daughters, she has nowhere to turn because there is little to no state assistance for battered women in Pakistan if they chose not to live with their husbands.

In 2010, a total of 2252 cases child sexual abuse were reported in the news, according to Sahil. That's almost a 12 percent increase from the previous year. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) states that these numbers are a fraction of the actual problem. It suspects that many cases of sexual violence are simply covered up, especially when they happen at the hands of a family member.

Zohra Yousuf, the chairperson for Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says that she doesn't suspect that the increase in number of reported cases in the media means that more crime of incest are happening, she says it could be that because Pakistanis are finally starting to come forward and discuss a type of crime that she believes is very prevalent in Pakistan but severely under-reported.

Incest and child abuse happen all over the world. But, according to a report by Equality Now, an international human rights organization, victims of incest in Pakistan face additional barriers in seeking justice.

The report also notes that, in the very few cases where a victim does come forward, the case rarely makes it past the procedural hurdles in the justice system. Even police officers, who are usually the first line of contact for these victims, sometimes refuse to file a complaint, sending the victim home and telling her that she is immoral for saying such things against her own father, according to Bano. The report by Equality Now also notes that perpetrators are never apprehended in most case or are often released without charges.

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Habiba Nosheen is a Pakistani born freelance journalists based in New York. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour among other publications. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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