When will there be justice for Pakistan’s victims of child abuse?

Three years after the murder of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari shook Pakistan, little has changed for victims.

In this photo from January 11, 2018, a girl lights a candle during a memorial for Zainab Ansari in Islamabad, Pakistan [File: BK Bangash/AP Photo]

On January 9, 2018, the body of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari was discovered on a rubbish dump in her home town of Kasur, Pakistan.

She was not the first young girl from the city to have disappeared and protests erupted in Kasur about police inaction over a string of violent sexual attacks against small children in the city. This anger spread beyond Kasur as riots broke out across Pakistan.

Three weeks after Zainab was raped and murdered, her killer, Imran Ali, was arrested with the help of security camera footage – which was obtained not by police, but by Zainab’s relatives. He was found guilty of similar crimes against six more girls. The families of those other children had sought help from the police but had been dismissed or come under suspicion themselves, leaving the killer free to continue offending. He was executed later that year, but simmering rage about the mishandling of the case remains.

This rage has triggered a national conversation about the prevalence of child abuse and sexual assault in Pakistan: crucially, about the fact that in this conservative nation, sex education is practically non-existent, meaning that many children do not have the tools to recognise predators, nor do they have the language to speak out about it if something happens.

This is a pressing issue. Nearly 10 cases of child abuse are reported each day in Pakistan, with girls disproportionately affected, according to Sahil, an organisation focused on child protection. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan places the estimate closer to 13 cases per day. As in other countries, many cases go unreported, so the true number is likely to be much higher.

At the time of Zainab’s murder, Pakistan did not have any national legislation on child abuse. Two years later, in March 2020, Pakistan’s parliament took steps to address this, passing a law responding to these concerns – the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill. It provides for a dedicated agency to respond more quickly when children go missing; creates a helpline for missing child alerts; makes it incumbent on local police chiefs to respond within two hours of the alert; requires police to complete their investigations of these cases within three months; and introduces a life sentence for child abuse.

But a year after the legislation was introduced, and three years after Zainab’s death, not much has changed in practical terms. Why might this be?

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that tackling child abuse is a complicated process that every country struggles with. In Pakistan, however, there is the additional issue of weak state institutions, which makes the implementation of laws patchy at best and non-existent at worst.

This is not unique to child abuse legislation; Pakistan has a raft of relatively progressive laws on women’s rights, for instance, which exist on the statute books but are simply not enforced by police. All too often, police at the ground level are poorly funded and poorly trained. Police officers may not always be aware of legal changes, and are ultimately a product of the society they live in – which often means they are patriarchal and conservative, with a tendency to view violence against women as a “family problem”, or as something provoked by the victim. There are also very few female police officers. Last September, a woman was gang raped on a highway after her car broke down. The lead police investigator suggested she should have taken a safer route and said that no one in Pakistani society would “allow their sisters and daughters to travel alone so late”.

The second problem is even more nebulous and difficult to challenge – the continued shame that exists when talking about these issues, which is particularly acute in a conservative society where any discussion of sex or sexual violence is taboo.

After Zainab’s murder in 2018, women on social media shared their experiences under the hashtag #JusticeForZainab. The actor, Nadia Jamil, tweeted about her own childhood abuse, highlighting that people are often shamed for speaking out: “People tell me not to talk to respect my family’s honour. Is my family’s honour packed in my body?”

The model, Frieha Altaf, tweeted about being abused by her family’s cook when she was six, writing: “My parents took action but everyone remained silent as if it was my shame.” These were brave interventions, but, as we have seen with the #MeToo movement globally, it takes a long time for social norms to change.

In fact, for a painful illustration of both of these issues – problems with the justice system and a pervasive culture of shame – we need look no further than Kasur, the city where Zainab lived.

At the time of her death, Kasur was often referred to as “the child abuse capital of Pakistan”, due to the horrifying revelation in 2015 that a paedophile ring had sexually abused 280 children from impoverished areas on the outskirts of the city, filming and selling videos of the assaults.

At the time, the case prompted national outrage, prefiguring Zainab’s case. Politicians visited the city and made grand promises of justice. They pledged psychological and financial support for the victims. But, as the news cameras moved on, so did political attention. The support never materialised.

Six years on, the boys and girls affected have been stigmatised by their communities and, in some cases, forced to move away. Meanwhile, the accused – who are mostly from, or affiliated with, a powerful family – have been released from jail and are free to live their lives and intimidate those who reported them. This was an all-too-common miscarriage of justice, highlighting the problems with a weak and corrupt justice system (particularly at the local level, as opposed to within the higher courts) and the deep shame that too often afflicts victims and their families.

The public debate and new legislation that came out of Zainab’s death was a positive outcome of a terrible tragedy. But the work, clearly, is just beginning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.