How Do You Dress a Six-Year-Old to Protect Him From Sexual Abuse and Murder?

KARACHI, Pakistan — Hang him in public, cut him into pieces, put those in a box, and when they begin to rot, burn them and throw the ashes to the winds, said the mother of an eight-year-old who was raped and murdered in Chunian, a small town in eastern Pakistan, last month. Her son, Faizan, was one of four boys targeted by a suspected serial killer.

The desire to inflict pain on and obliterate the killer of your child is completely understandable. And we have been here before.

Last year, Zainab, a six-year-old girl, was raped and killed and her body thrown on a trash heap in the same district of Kasur. Her angelic face was all over TV and social media for weeks. There were protests, and two people were killed when police fired on the crowd.

Zainab became an emblem of our national shame and outrage. Many of us Pakistanis demanded a public hanging back then, too. Her killer was caught and hanged; not in public, but still, and considering the generally slow pace of the Pakistani justice system, he was dispatched swiftly.

But we had been here even before that.

In 2015, reports emerged of a child pornography ring — also in a village in Kasur. Initially, there was mention of several hundred child-abuse videos, involving some 280 victims, and links to international child-porn rings. More than a dozen people were arrested and investigated. In the end, though, the police concluded that there was no organized group at work and claimed that about 20 children had been assaulted.

In the media, journalists and talking heads called all these perpetrators things like beasts and jungle animals. But the truth is that no beast known to man, existing or extinct, videotapes its young while it is abusing them.

“Kasur” has become a byword for child abuse in Pakistan because of the grisly stories that have come out of there, but let’s not pretend the problem is confined to that one district. It is rampant across the country, in all of our backyards.

According to an NGO working on child protection, there were more than 1,300 reported cases of child abuse in Pakistan during the first six months of this year. One can only speculate in horror about how many more cases have not been reported.

Yet we feel outrage only when we discover children’s bodies on heaps of trash. And then our outrage is largely beside the point. As in the past, since the latest spate of murders, there has been a lot of hand-wringing, loathing for the beast who did it and disgust with the police and the government that didn’t stop him. But there is hardly any conversation about why so many of our children are so vulnerable.

Or that discussion veers toward morality, sometimes religion. Last month, the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, in the northwest, issued an order that required school-going girls as young as 10 to wear an abaya, a full length robe. As if rampant child abuse were a result of, and maybe punishment for, our sins.

The notice was later withdrawn, but for a couple of days gray-haired, pious men sat on TV shows shaking their heads and lecturing the country on the need to cover the bodies of preteen girls as the only way to protect them from being raped or harassed. Religion and tradition were invoked. Man’s beastly nature was mentioned. To make an argument for the hijab, the ridiculous hijab ban in France was trotted out.

When the lawyer Reema Omar pointed out that half the children abused in Pakistan actually are boys and asked what dress code the government had in mind for them, she was shouted at and asked if she would like the girls to go around in bikinis. In all the fiery debate, nobody could come up with a solution for how to dress up a four-year-old boy to save his life.

When we can’t hide behind morality or religion there is always a conspiracy theory. “Kasur is in the spotlight right now. Some gangs may be operating here in order to defame the country,” Sarah Ahmad, the chairwoman of the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau in Punjab Province, told a reporter. Our reaction is always to become defensive.

Defend our city, defend our culture, defend our humanity, and do it while someone’s child somewhere is being lured into a rickshaw and taken to a construction site never to return alive or, if lucky, to come back traumatized for life. Maybe it’s true. Maybe if we were better Muslims, or even average human beings, our children would be safer.

Or maybe if we all had more money our children would be safer. In theory at least, middle-class and affluent children are relatively safe. They still fall prey to a family member or household help who lives in close proximity — actually, I don’t have one intimate friend who wasn’t sexually abused as a child. But they are still alive. As children, they had homes and schools and, usually, some elder around to provide some measure of safety.

What about the four-year-olds who are on their own? Last year, nearly 23 million Pakistani children weren’t going to school. They were working in bazaars, cafes and sweatshops or just loitering around, waiting for their parents to return from their hard day’s labor. In many households, a child under 10 is looking after four younger siblings all day.

Most of the children who have been abused or murdered belong to the poorest of families. Poor people are scared of going to the police, and when they do, the police’s attitude can be extremely callous. When the parents of an 12-year-old who went missing in Kasur in June approached the police, they were told to go look for him in the shrines where many runaway children end up or consult a faith healer. His mutilated body was found three months later.

The police claim to have collected more than 15,000 DNA samples, at a cost of 240 million rupees (more than $1.5 million), to catch the latest suspected serial killer. This is to the force’s credit, but to focus on punishment rather than prevention still leaves our children’s lives at risk. We want to avenge our little ones, and the government is willing to spend millions to track down their killers. But gallows in town squares hardly keep our children safe.

We can hang abusers in public, cut them into little pieces and burn those, but can we provide protection for the most vulnerable? Three meals a day maybe and a school to go to? If parents are forced to work 18 hours a day to feed their children, it’s the state and society’s responsibility to look after those kids. How much protection can a nine-year-old give her younger siblings?

Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.

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