The rape, killing and dumping of the body of Zainab - a seven-year-old girl in a dustbin in Kasur in Pakistan seems to have affected the societal conscience. Ever since, there have been spontaneous civil society protests not only in Kasur, but also in rest of Pakistan against the brutality, demanding justice for Zainab.
A few years ago, gang rape of a young girl in New Delhi stirred the public emotion in the national capital in India. The Delhi incident created a national furore; the victim was taken to Singapore, but could not survive. But, the attack on her pricked the societal conscience. From electronic to social and print media, there was so much of focus during 2012-13. Multiple processions, candlelight prayers and discussions – but the issue died down later in 2013. The society moved on. Will Zainab also be forgotten during 2018?
Zainabs of South Asia
Zainab is not just a Kasur story. Each district in South Asia, cutting across the national boundaries has a Zainab story to tell. The regional statistics in South Asia highlight a horrible fact regarding violence against the children.
The violence against children in South Asia is a huge story. Child Labour, Child Marriage, Sexual Exploitation, Trafficking, Child Soldiers – the list of violent activities against the children is a long one.
While the causes for the above are different and covers a broad swathe – poverty, illiteracy, patriarchy, economy, conflict, failure of the State etc – the harsh reality is – South Asia is one of the most unfriendly regions for the children
Hypocritical Civil Society
It is unfortunate, that a region that takes pride in family values and considers itself a superior culture to many others at the global level, has a statistics that would make our heads hang in shame. While the society openly condemns certain crimes in the list, it remains indifferent to another. Worse, it accepts a set of crimes as inevitable and even would like to justify as practical.
Child marriage and labour – for example, despite national legislation continue to happen on a daily basis – both in rural and urban South Asia. Child brides are common in many parts of South Asia; worse, is the use of children, especially girls as a settlement reached through local panchayats. Whether tribal or rural jirgas, the fact is, there is a societal acceptance to the phenomenon.
Child labour is worse. Most of South Asia (there is no need for a “rural” qualifier, as the issue could be found in urban areas as well) has a child labour problem. We just pretend that it does not happen. We turn our faces the other side, and ignore if there is someone employed in our immediate environment. From begging in the roadsides to constructions, from dhabas to corner shops that deliver goods to our home – we are well aware of the problem. We see it, but just ignore it. Or pretend, that it does not happen.
Child abuse is even worse. There is enough statistics in South Asia to prove that the phenomenon cuts across class differences in rural and urban areas. And in most cases, the abuser is someone who is known to the victim. If there is an exclusive “me too hashtag” on child abuse within the families, the stories will be huge. Still, the families will hush it. All in the name of “family honour”!
Child soldiers are another phenomenon, though not exclusive to South Asia. Though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) shared more headlines on the issue, other conflicts in the region have used children as soldiers. From the Pakistan Taliban to Nepal Maoists – Child Soldiers are a regional phenomenon; it has happened and it would continue.
The reason is simple – our society is hypocritical and insensitive.
An insensitive Investigation Force
While we consider our culture to many others, especially the West, there is so much we could learn from the latter. But, we would not. A case in point is our treatment of the children, especially by the law enforcement agencies.
Children are considered as Special Victims; hence a few countries have focussed force in dealing with abuse against children.
Our police force in South Asia – cutting across the national boundaries in the region – is indifferent to special victims. How sensitive are our institutions in dealing with violence against women and children. Even a matured and a well-educated woman in South Asia would find it difficult to interact with our investigating agencies. Even filing a case in a police station will be a harassing experience in South Asia.
While South Asia has women cells, the issue remains. Investigating institutions in South Asia – cutting across the gender divide remains the same in attitude. There is a cultural arrogance; the agencies also become judgemental in dealing with the victims.
An indifferent judiciary
Those who have gone through the judicial process in South Asia – even on a simple civilian issue will understand the tough nature of the system. Despite well-meaning efforts by some of the leading jurists, honourable judges and societal conscience lawyers, the judiciary in South Asia is not victim friendly.
Even the lawyers and judges within the judicial structure have been complaining about gender inequality. Imagine, how the structure will be for outsiders, who do not have legal knowledge. For many victims, it has been a nightmarish experience recounting the entire crime and face tough (and times even indifferent) questions. Even a simple divorce proceeding is not easy for a woman.
While the judicial system may talk in terms of legal jurisprudence, the sociological and psychological understanding of the victims and her background in cases relating abuse has a long way to go.
A harsh state
Finally, the State in South Asia pays only lip service to the issue of violence against gender and children. Like the judiciary, the State also talks regarding legislations, and consider the issue as addressed, if the national Parliament or the provincial assemblies have passed a few legislations specific to gender and children.
There have been enough cases in the recent years – how legislators were insulted and abused in camera in the legislative assemblies. If this could happen to an elected legislator, in the legislative assembly, or to a learned person in a live discussion with the entire country watching it – imagine the plight of those victims, who were abused in private.
The State is harsh – as it fails to take adequate measures, despite knowing where the problems are. The reason is simple – the issue is not a priority one for the State in South Asia. From the Parliament to Bureaucracy – the harsh reality in South Asia is – for our State – issues relating to gender and children are neither a matter of primacy nor significance.
Unfortunately, Zainab will be forgotten in a few weeks. Our individual and collective conscience will have other issues to ponder over, until, there is another brutal crime. We need a larger debate; and we need to sustain it. Else, despite a few more “me too hashtags”, op-eds and TV discussions, we will come back to the same point.
Perhaps, we are an insensitive society and we want to find faults with others. It is easier to abdicate our responsibilities and shift the blame on the State.