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Sexual Violence against Children and Afghan Refugees in Pakistan

By Orbala | Pashtun Women Viewpoint, February 2013

It is universally known that victims of sexual abuse or violence often fall under the most vulnerable members of society, such as refugees, migrants, children (regardless of sex or gender), people with disabilities, females, and gendered minorities, for instance, intersex individuals or hermaphrodites (born with both male and female reproductive organs). The perpetrators can be anyone, male or female but more commonly male, and belong to any religion or ethnicity. The most important thing that the abusers have in common is that they have easy access to their victims and they often enjoy positions of authority and power that compel others to trust them. Since teachers, coaches, adult family members or relatives, neighbors, and mullahs, qaaris, or imams (religious leaders and teachers of the Qur'an) have easy access to children, many among them frequently abuse the trust of the parents and guardians of the children they supervise or teach by molesting them. Needless to say, this does not mean all teachers, coaches, and mullahs are perpetrators of sexual abuse, but the reality is that many of them are. What's worse, our society has programmed us to trust these people blindly because of our close relations with them or because of their position in society.      

Below, I highlight sexual abuse faced by Afghan refugees in Pakistan as well as children abused by mullahs, qaaris, and other teachers who are supposed to be teaching our children the Qur'an. This is because recently on my blog, I discussed how my Qur’an teacher sexually abused my female classmates recurrently when I was a child in Pakistan (Swat). Disturbingly enough, when I share this with other Pakistanis, most tell me, “But you know, almost every Pakistani, boy or girl, has at least once in their lifetime been molested, most often by a mullah.” Indeed, this is a common story in many households, although the silence surrounding it is deafening as we continue to fool ourselves into thinking that such “pious” men would never commit such crimes despite the prevalence of the crime. It is time to start talking about it, to start paying attention to our children’s pleas when they do not want to attend the madrasah or mosque, and to stop trusting all of our Qur’an teachers blindly.

Sexual Violence against Children

As the American Psychological Association (APA) says:

There is no universal definition of child sexual abuse. However, a central characteristic of any abuse is the dominant position of an adult that allows him or her to force or coerce a child into sexual activity. Child sexual abuse may include fondling a child's genitals, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, and vaginal and anal intercourse. Child sexual abuse is not solely restricted to physical contact; such abuse could include noncontact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography. Abuse by peers also occurs.

Moreover, according to a report that quotes a representative of the Child Rise and Abuse Committee in Peshawar, “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....” This is important: sexual abuse does not just involve penetration; even touching children inappropriately, showing them one’s private parts, and even flirting with them are forms of abuse.  Some of these are recognized as “accepted parts of daily life” and are thus not seen as crimes, which itself is a crime on the society’s part.

There currently is not much research on the impact of sexual abuses on children in Pakistan (as in many other societies), perhaps because of the stigma against discussing such a "private" issue in "public." But from research conducted in other parts of the world, we are today more aware of the cyclic nature of sexual abuse. We know, for example, that children who were sexually abused are highly likely to sexually abuse others when they grow up themselves. We also know that especially females are likely to grow up and tolerate sexual abuse from their husbands and other potential perpetrators. Child sexual abuse is also a major cause of mental trauma, including depression; this is most possible in those cases where the victim has no support or is unable to stop what is happening to her/him. For other sources on child sex abuse, how to detect a victim, what the consequences of the abuse are, how it can affect the child's future miserably, and many other issue related to this matter, click here or here.

Sexual Violence against Afghan Refugees in Pakistan

Sexual abuse against refugees is a universal problem. As displaced members of the society who were forced to flee their native land hoped to feel safe elsewhere, their vulnerable situation makes them an easy target for abuse and violence by those in positions of authority or by community members who believe they are doing a favor for the refugees. In particular, children (male or female) and women are most prone to sexual abuse in exchange for money and other assistance. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) guidelines on Prevention and Response, some of the reasons why refugees face violence include: political motives, such as when sexual violence is used as a weapon of warfare to humiliate the victims; the locals’ perception that  the refugees might be more privileged than they or that the refugees might engage in criminal activities that include the depletion of natural resources; ethnic and traditional feuds and biases; and male attitudes of disrespect towards women.

Pakistan alone has over 1.6 registered Afghan refugees, many of whom live in slum areas throughout the country. In Islamabad specifically, the Pir Wadhai Bus station is 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” and “is notorious as a centre of child sexual abuse.” Child prostitution throughout the country is no new phenomenon. A majority of the victims at this station have run away from homes hoping to escape poverty; lured with food, money, and clothing by those seeking children for sexual abuse or prostitution, the children submit without realizing what is happening. Even if they refuse, they are accused of theft and taken to the police, where the procurers act as benefactors and arrange for the bail thus influencing the children to act as guided.” The station 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,” and the children are between the ages of 9 and 16.

When Mullahs Molest Children

It is hard for many to imagine that a mullah or another religious teacher would do something as disturbing, as inappropriate, as un-Islamic as sexually abusing a child. This is because we believe them to be God-fearing people who sometimes live and always work in the House of God (place of worship). They teach us what God's message is, and it is impossible for us to imagine that they would touch the Word of God (the Qur'an) with the same hands with which they molest a child. So, when a child speaks up and tells someone that she or he has been abused by a mullah, no one believes them; instead, the child gets verbal and physical abuses from those in whom he/she just confided. 

When this discussion of child abuse came up on Twitter (and here) in August, most of the participants shared their own or others' stories of sexual abuse by the mullahs of their mosques. A few, however, were skeptical of our motives for raising this problem, and asked why we were highlighting the profession. Others also asked, "What about engineers? Are they not capable of being pedophiles?" While anyone is capable of committing this crime, what makes the mullahs and other religion-affiliated pedophiles stand out is their role in children's and our lives. One doesn't normally send her children over to an engineer, and they don't play a significant role in our personal, religious, or educational lives unless they are our parents or otherwise close family members.

What’s worse, we are declared kafir (“infidel”) or western agents for discussing the reality that many, if not most, mullahs and other teachers of Islam molest their young students. That we would choose to emphasize “Qur’an teacher” when talking about sexual abuse is apparently an offense to those who deny that qaaris and mullahs are not exempt from engaging in such disturbing atrocities. These people intuitively associate qaaris with Islam, and to speak against them is thus to speak against Islam. The logic could not get more absurd. If we have to keep quiet about this problem because people believe it will "damage" Islam, let it be a reminder that Islam doesn't need defending—people’s insecurities need defending; that's not Islam's problem, and that's not Muslims' problem—that's one’s personal problem. Interestingly, the same batch of Muslims who vehemently deny that mullahs, qaaris, and other religious figures could molest children are among the first to point fingers at the Catholic priests for being notorious for committing the same crime. Just as Muslim pedophiles should not be associated with Islam, so, too, should Christian child molesters not be associated with Christianity. Molestation and abuse in general have no religion, and anyone is capable of committing it—just as anyone may be a victim of it.

Yet, we fail to address this issue because of people’s reaction—possibly the same people who also suffered the abuses or know someone who has. Different forms of media can powerfully discuss this reality, but while a few songs depict this form of abuse, such as a Pashto poetry written by Ghani Khan and sung by Yasir & Jawad titled Niqab,” the message is still somewhat subtle and not all viewers would interpret it as portraying the effects of child sexual abuse—committed, in this case also, by a mullah. Is there nothing more that the media can do to highlight this problem and propose some possible solutions?

Why the Silence?

Nobody talks about this because in our cultures, anything that involves the human body is considered shameful—and anyone who talks about the human body or human sexuality is considered shameless. This is quite unfortunate because the intention of anti-sex crimes advocates is not to create a scene or to offend our cultural sentiments. The intention is, however, to make it known that this problem exists, that denying that anyone could fall prey to sexual abuse has only exacerbated the problem so much that, even in 2012, we find it difficult to combat the issue due to our cultural sensitivities. It might be taboo to talk about “sex” in our societies, but molestation and sexual abuse are not “sex”; they are rape! Rape is when there is force involved on one side and is entirely about power and control; sex is (should be) between consenting adults who agree to give and receive pleasure to and from each other.

Why our disturbing silence and denial of the issue, then? Who are we trying to protect? Perhaps it is that it is not official yet—it's not officially recognized that imams, qaaris, mullahs, too, molest, sometimes even rape, kids. If so, how many more victims have to come forward, how many more kids have to be abused, how many more mullahs have to do it in order for it to be a recognized crime? How did the Catholic priests become notorious for this crime? People talked about it, and the victims came forward—and when one person speaks up, others feel inspired to do the same.

Protecting the Children

Sexually abusing anyone, regardless of age, is a ruthless crime, but the abuse of children is perhaps the worst of all, and it is quite revealing of the failure of our society to protect its children that a high percentage of our children are sexually abused on a daily basis—with over 80% of them by people the children know and are told to trust. Whether refugees or not, the children of our society need protection against all forms of abuse; as long as one child in our society is unsafe, all are unsafe. Many of us are under the impression that our own children are safe, and so we have nothing to worry about—this thinking is morally flawed because we need to collectively fight against the perpetrators and abusers, whether they are our local mullahs, our school teachers, our best friends, our relatives, or random seekers of child prostitutes in bus stations. Whether the children are being paid for the sexual violence committed against them or not, it is our moral obligation to ensure their protection; so far, however, we have shamefully failed as a society to protect our children while serving as “morality” police forces in almost all other aspects of life, such as whether or not a girl’s hair is properly covered or whether a woman or a man is leading the nation. Our children are our future; in order for them to inherit the world after us as the next active, working generation, we need to ensure their safety and security. Security is not just in terms of physical but also mental, and a child cannot be secure unless she or he feels secure, which is impossible if they have experienced any sort of trauma, in the form of sexual abuse, in their lives before or are still experiencing it. This includes mental trauma, which lasts permanently and is often far more powerful than physical trauma, and is common result of sexual abuse.


Orbala is an Islamic Studies student with emphasis on gender relations in Islamic law and Muslim societies.

Orbala's blogs:

Follow Orbala on Twitter: @qrratugai.

Orbala is a cofounder of Pashtun Women Viewpoint

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Disclaimer: Views here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent an official standpoint of Safe World for Women, as an organisation.