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Monday, January 4, 1999 Published at 15:58 GMT

World: South Asia

Pakistan's wall of silence on child abuse

Some in the North West Frontier Province see sexual abuse as normal

By Richard Galpin in Pakistan

A new report on attitudes to child sex abuse in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province paints a horrifying picture of widespread abuse.

The report shows that many of the population believe that the sexual abuse of young boys is a matter of pride.

Richard Galpin reports on the horrifying tales of sexual abuse and what is being done
The United Nations is shortly to publish the first nation-wide survey on child sex-abuse in Pakistan - an acutely sensitive subject in this deeply conservative Islamic country.

The first indications of the scale of the problem have been revealed in this early report from North-West Frontier Province.

It shows that one third of those who took part in the survey did not even believe that child sexual abuse was a bad thing - let alone a crime.

The UN believes the sexual abuse of young children is widespread in some areas of the country but that until now it has been hidden behind a wall of silence.

In Pakistan much of the population lives in squalid slums where children are forced to play their part in the day to day survival of the family. That means working in places such as the notorious Pirwadhai bus station in Rawalpindi.

[ image: Poor children need to take every opportunity to make money on the streets]
Poor children need to take every opportunity to make money on the streets
Here there are hundreds of young boys at work in the grimy workshops and sleazy hotels on which the bus station's reputation is based. For this is a centre of child sexual abuse.

One boy told me that local hotels encouraged the trade: "The hotel-owners employ children who are used to attract customers. The customers are then told what kind of services are provided and that they can do what they want with the children. The hotels here are very well known for these services. And it's good money for us."

Their clients are men from all backgrounds - travelling from one part of the country to another - thus freed from the constraints of life at home in this conservative society. With girls mostly kept at home - they prey on these working boys who are extremely vulnerable to abuse.

Although at present there is little data on child sexual abuse in Pakistan, experts such as the clinical psychologist, Kamran Ahmad, believe it is widespread:

"There is a lot of repression of sexuality so what happens is that is shows up in unhealthy forms. You rarely find healthy expressions of sexuality in everyday life so sexual abuse becomes very common"

For the victims it is a terrifying ordeal. A boy told us how he had been raped when he was just 7 years old. He said the men in his village were like dogs - 'they would eat you like a dog' he said. 'It was not safe for any young fair-skinned boy to go out alone. It was a tradition to molest boys'.

According to the report many people in Frontier Province are also well aware that men in the area keep boys specifically for sex.

[ image: The Pirwadhai bus station is notorious as a base of the child sex trade]
The Pirwadhai bus station is notorious as a base of the child sex trade
All this seems to be a result of the rigid segregation of men and women in Pakistan, which is most seriously enforced in the Pashtoon areas of the North. Under Pashtoon culture it is very difficult for a young man to interact with the opposite sex - particularly in the rural areas.

Young boys therefore become the targets of abuse.

But the government is starting to recognise the issue. The Secretary at the Ministry of Women's Development and Social Welfare, Muzzafar Quresh, says : "We're beginning to realise that it is a serious problem.

"We've initiated several studies to try to measure the extent and there's also some evidence coming out about what happens to children and the need for greater attention to rehabilitate them and to bring them back to a normal social life."

But in reality only a handful of organisations are helping children at risk of being exploited and abused. The subject is still far too hidden for there to be a concerted campaign to rescue the many victims.

The publication of the nationwide survey on child sexual abuse is a critical test for both the government and Pakistani society as a whole.

It will prompt painful introspection - but the hope is that it will lead to positive reform.

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