Child sexual abuse cases spiked during Covid-19 lockdown measures in Pakistan, according to local rights groups.

PESHAWAR – Child sexual abuse and rapes soared in Pakistan during this year’s Covid-19 lockdown, a revelation that has sparked shock, grief and protest across major cities nationwide against a perennial problem that has intensified despite efforts to curb it.  

Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO), an Islamabad-based nongovernmental organization, estimated as much as a 400% spike quarter on quarter in reported child rapes, sexual assaults and often associated kidnapping cases during this year’s second quarter, coinciding with stay-home lockdown measures at the time.

The report pointed out that 119 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in January-March, which increased to 576 during April-June, representing an increase of almost 400%.

Violence against women also increased to 495 from 43 cases, registering a spike of over 800%, while overall rape cases swelled to 250 from 65 making a spiral of over 250% during the same period.

More than 80% of child rapes and sexual abuse cases were committed in Punjab province followed in prevalence by Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan provinces.

Sahil, another local rights group, said in another report that Covid restrictions that forced children to remain indoors and out of school opened the way for relatives to more frequently abuse them. The group’s research shows that 60% of child sex abuse cases in Pakistan are perpetrated by children’s close relatives.   

A recent series of publicly reported gruesome crimes has spurred a new public debate over how to check the violence against children as young as four years old.

On social media and at street protests, critics have lashed out at the government’s apathy towards removing legal loopholes that allow predominantly male perpetrators to walk free. They are now calling for exemplary punishments including capital punishment to instill fear and curb crimes.

Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan at least rhetorically answered those calls, including in a suggestion that child sex abusers should face “chemical castration” and even “public hanging.” Few, however, expect his government to follow up those tough words with equal actions.  

Activists and analysts say the real fault lies with the police, criminal investigators and the broad justice system, which they contend reflexively favors assailants over victims. 

Khawaja Khalid Farooq, a retired inspector general of police and ex-head of National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta), wrote in a recent op-ed that most sexual assault victims in Pakistan do not even go to the police, which he said is perceived by many as hostile to such complaints.  

Farooq wrote that those sex victims who dare to report to the police station are often re-traumatized by uncaring and insensitive officers. “Policing in Pakistan is still very far to have a ‘victim-centered’ approach in all interactions with crime victims, particularly victims of the sexual assault.”

A victim-centered approach, he wrote, focuses on the needs of the victim and ensures that services are delivered in a compassionate and nonjudgmental manner, and encourages them to actively participate in the criminal justice process.

Until that happens, activists warn, the rapes will likely continue apace with impunity. The list of assaults lengthens by the day. Last month, in the southern port city of Karachi, news reports said a 5-year-old girl was abducted, raped, killed and then set on fire.

One police report lodged in Tandianwala police station last month disclosed that a man was held while trying to sexually assault a four-year-old girl who wanted to buy chocolate from a nearby shop.

In another recent police report, a resident of Faisalabad claimed that a man tried to rape his 15-year old daughter in the fields. At the New Civil Lines neighborhood in Sheikhupra, a shopkeeper was caught trying to rape a nine-year-old boy. The police report stated that people heard the victim screaming. The child had gone to the shop to buy biscuits.  

Last week, an eight-year-old boy was raped and murdered in Karachi, while a day earlier a 4-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in Mansehra.  In another case, police arrested two men in the Jhelum Valley district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir for gangraping a 10-year-old orphan girl.

Activists warn the rapes will continue until the cycle of impunity is broken, despite social media outrage, street protests and even prime ministerial rhetoric about getting tougher on child predators.