‘Stay away from kids you disgusting animal’: 1.5 million homeless children in Pakistan of which 90% have been sexually abused
Pakistan's dark underbelly: In towns and cities across the country, thousands of vulnerable boys have become the victims of paedophiles.
You would be forgiven to think that I am addressing only the pedophiles. The title is as much for those who like to prey on children as it is for the radicals who would rather kill Muslims from other sects or go liberate Palestine than to help the most innocent and vulnerable in their own country. I will deal with the extremists at another time.
Pakistan is going through a sea change and a part of it is to do with better reporting on cases of child abuse and neglect. A 2014 report by Daily Mail revealed that there are 1.5 million street children in the country of which 90% have been sexually abused or are in prostitution. Last year, a documentary film by Muslim Charity, a local non profit, concurred with those statistics and said that the numbers are on the rise despite intervention efforts.
Ijaz, a bus conductor from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is open about his desires like many pedophiles in the country. He is unwed, works long hours to make enough money to barely scrape by and his favorite activity is to have sex with young boys for as little as $1. Many times, he and others like him, brutally abuse kids for no money or for a soft drink.
Most of these children are boys - some as young as six years old - who are runaways, were born to prostitutes or belong to Afghan refugees who settled in the slums of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, during the cold war.
“Once, there was a boy on the bus and everyone had sex with him,” Ijaz confessed.
“I did it too but what else could I do? They invited me. And he was that kind of boy anyway,” he said and admitted to raping at least 12 kids when he was interviewed by a Channel 4 documentary filmmaker in 2014.
Sexual abuse of minors is rife in Pakistan as it is in much of the Muslim world and beyond. Four million children are forced into labor from an early age due to poverty and a significant number of those end up on the streets where they are easy targets for people like Ijaz.
A survey of 1800 men in the country found that 1 out of 3 believed raping a boy is not a crime. In another survey, 95% of Pakistani truck drivers admitted that sex with young boys is their favorite form of entertainment.
One boy, Naeem, who turned 20 this year, escaped his violent brother who would tie Naeem to a tree as a form of punishment and started living on the streets when he was just eight. Naeem got addicted to the cheap heroin that pours into Peshawar from neighboring Afghanistan and casually talks of a street which is frequented by “all the paedos.”
'I was lying here sleeping and four people grabbed me and threw me into a car,' he recalls. 'One was a bus driver, the others were heroin addicts. All four of them raped me.'
Naeem’s world is that of abuse and violence. He sells his body to buy drugs and regularly cuts and stabs himself to escape the pain. With tears in his eyes, he told his story to reporters which I strongly recommend that everyone watch. The film got over 10 million views after it was published on YouTube in 2017.
“Their souls are injured. Their souls are dead,” said Irfan Rajput, Director of International Programs and Policy at Muslim Charity. His organization is working with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to reintegrate children like Naeem back into society. The government has established shelters called Panahgah (refuge) in all major cities. In Lahore, the country’s cultural hub and a relatively prosperous city, the home of the former finance minister in the upscale neighborhood of Gulberg was turned into a shelter home last year. Shelters provide food, education, a bed and counselling services to help rehabilitate kids and their families.
The problem is common throughout the country but it seems like that it is particularly pronounced in Peshawar. The city is home to the largest community of Pashtuns, an ethnic tribe, anywhere in the world and pedophilia against boys is culturally accepted in at least some parts of the community. Few months back, I wrote about the practice of child sex slaves in Afghanistan, a Pashtun majority country.
“Infamously known as Dancing Boys, hundreds of these wholly innocent human beings are trained to entertain male audiences then prostituted to warlords and businessmen in what is locally known as ‘bacha bazi.’ One warlord who was married with two sons boasted about abusing close to 3,000 boys in the last two decades because owning boys is a status symbol in the war torn country.”
(I am not a Pashtun but I have been to Peshawar many times and its people are by far the most hospitable I have ever met. Reading this may make you think that Peshawar is the source of all evil but it is important you know that I did not experience any hate there in contrast to the daily experiences of racism I faced in my seven years in London. I will deal with the racists and bigots some other time).
Hassan Deen, who rents beds - and sometimes boys - at Peshawar’s largest bus terminal told Channel 4 that most abusers are bus drivers.
“A bus driver rents a bed from me and he says he'll pay an extra 50 or 100 rupees ($0.6) if I can get him a boy. There's often a kid wandering the streets alone. We tell these boys we'll provide food and shelter if they come with us. That's how we lure them in.”
Like Naeem, many street kids have sex with adults so that they can feed their addiction to drugs or buy something to eat.
“If I don't make enough money picking trash, I sell my body,” shared Naeem. “The first time I sold myself, I didn't have any money. So I did it three times with a man and in return, he gave me 3,000 rupees ($18). I was eight and a half. I was little. The first time I did it, I hadn't eaten for two to three days. Afterwards, I cried all night, asking myself, ‘What have I done?’ I did this to myself to make some money.”
Rajput shared the story of Abdul Rehman, a boy in his early teens apparently from Lahore, who lives in a sewage hole with his cousin. The boys sealed off the other side of the sewage line to prevent waste flowing into their makeshift residence.
“We as human beings and we're coming from different parts of the world, we can't really think of even looking into this hole, it's dark even during the day and it smells horrible,” Rajput said.
In the Muslim Charity documentary, Rajput is shown talking to Rehman who has used the hole for at least six months.
Rajput: How long have you been addicted to drugs?
Rehman: Four years.
Rajput: Have you ever tried to quit?
Rehman: I have tried many times but I can’t live without it… I used to live with my uncle and I couldn't take drugs in his presence so I ran away.
“These children will do anything to get the drugs. When I say anything, then it's also the sexual abuse. They don't do it willingly, they do it because they need money. They are exploited, sometimes by the grown up and sometimes by the people we can't imagine,” noted Rajput.
The most notorious case of child sexual abuse in Pakistan was of the serial killer Javed Iqbal who abducted orphans and runaways living on the streets of Lahore. He confessed to killing at least 100 kids between 1998-1999 before dissolving their bodies in acid and was found dead in his prison cell. Officials say that he died by suicide but observers believe that he was killed to prevent him from incriminating other people. His case got national and international media attention but at a time when Pakistan had only a few TV networks so his horrific crimes did not change attitudes.
That, in addition to the fact that talking about sex or sexual crimes is a taboo in the country, provides cover to serial rapists. In 2005, there were a range of cases involving sexual crimes against children from Kasur, a city close to Lahore in Punjab province, but they were shrugged under the proverbial rug. Kasur is so infamous that porn sites categorize videos of sex with minors under #Kasur.
In 2007, the country experienced an explosion of media outlets. Pakistan now has over 100 networks of which 30 are 24/7 news stations. A survey of over 80 regional and national newspapers found that close to 3000 cases of child sex abuse were reported in 2020 alone.
Stories of barbaric abuse reared into the mainstream media but nothing got as much attention as the case of 6-year-old Zainab Ansari who was abducted in her hometown of Kasur and was extensively raped and tortured reportedly for viewers on the dark web. Her body was found a few days later in a dumpster in January 2018. Her father, a prominent political activist, was performing Hajj in Saudi Arabia when it happened and was able to use his political mileage and know-how to generate extensive media coverage and the focus of activists and government bodies. The backlash from civil society was swift.
There were protests and vigils across the country. People clashed with the police and two people were killed after they broke into a police station.
Malala Yousufzai tweeted that “this has to stop. [Government] and the concerned authorities must take action. #JusticeForZainab.”
Imran Khan, then a member of national assembly, said that the “horrific rape & murder of little Zainab exposes once again how vulnerable our children are in our society.” He was joined by many celebrities on social media to voice their frustration over inaction by the authorities. Kiran Naz, a news anchor for a local news station, Samaa TV, hosted a morning news bulletin with her young daughter on her lap as a sign of protest. Ansari’s murderer, a 24-year-old mechanic who had killed at least twelve underage girls before Ansari, was sentenced to death in February 2018 and was executed by hanging later that year.
Widespread outcry led to the country’s first national child safety law, Zainab Alert. The law created a minimum mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for perpetrators of child abuse and allows legal action against law enforcement officials who fail to act within two hours of a child being reported missing.
Any real change, however, is decades away. Prime Minister Khan, a Pashtun, spoke to Channel 4 at the time their documentary came out and said that this relentless evil is “one of the most sad and shameful aspects of our society. I'm totally embarrassed by this. It's really shameful for us that we have not been able to protect them.”
According to a Save the Children report, “as many as one in 10 are murdered by the men who abuse them.”
Some of those who live go on to abuse other children. Going back to Naeem, he confessed to abusing a 10-year-old boy.
“I took him to the cinema and spent money on him and he was OK with it. But when we left the cinema, he said he didn't want to do it anymore so then I grabbed his hand and forced him.”