Daring to Whisper

By Sarah Abidi

Voices, unheard.

‘I was gullible. They must have picked up on that. […]

He said, “We all know about you. We talk about you in the servants’ quarters. You’re the bad boy. You’re the one who likes bad things…”

I never told anyone. What would I have said? It was too shameful and I was too scared.’
–“The Silent Ones”, Naveen Naqvi[i]

Downstairs with the teacup in one hand, toting my handbag in the other, I get into the car with my father to ride to another work day. After two turns of the ignition, the CNG pumps and the engine roars. Both of us are too sleepy to strike up a conversation, dreading the workloads on our respective desks for the day. But we barely reach the main road when a public service message on FM 106.2, on raising awareness about child sexual abuse (CSA) and how to protect your child against it, shatters our mundane routine.

My first thought is, what would the maulvis have to say about this? Would there be riots, protests that a hush-hush topic was so blatantly being tossed about in the mass media? Before I can make a prediction however, I am shocked by my father’s reaction.  Eyes glued to the road he discreetly turns the volume down, as is his habit whenever something objectionable comes up on TV.  This time however, I defiantly turn it up again, ignoring his speechless aura of disapproval. The heavy silence is admonished by a crackling voice: “Hiding the problem is not a solution.”

Such is the Herculean challenge faced by Aahung in its fight against this blistering psychosocial plague on our society. Well-meaning citizens with their tabooed secrecy become accomplices to a heinous crime. Our tut-tutting silences, holier-than-thou attitudes breed the most terrible children’s rights violations – violations that abound because we stifle the faint half-voices that dare to whisper them.

Still brooding, I relate the NGO’s public service message to my co-workers at lunch. Hira[ii] tells me about her experiences while researching her thesis on Pedophilia and the Media. She relates some traumatizing stories; disturbing facts come to light.

Child sexual abuse, contrary to what I previously believed, happens in all social classes. The abusive perpetrator is usually someone the child initially feels safe with, and won’t talk to her parents about. Extended family members are not above the vulgarity. They are the abusers in an overwhelming number of cases, while domestic servants have a smaller part than one would expect. The abused child is confused about his sexuality, does not know how to talk to his parents or whether to even speak of the cruel deed, and is shamed into silence. Few cases come to light, and even fewer are reported.

Gruesome cases sometimes make it to the headlines, so long as they’re sensational enough for mass media. In Karachi in mid-2009, 3-year-old Sana was viciously raped and killed, her body left to rot in a manhole – by policemen, the so-called “protectors” of our security. The savages were tried in an Anti-Terror Court, borne there by civil societal anger and media pressure. However, pedophilia is rampant in our society because most victims are silenced. Once the abuse starts, a victim is told that he or she is to blame— that it is their fault because they like bad things – they are filthy and evil and deserve such cruelty.  This constant assault makes innocent children more vulnerable to further instances of abuse, leeching onto their sensibilities and making them yield to their abuser. Worst of all, such a child feels like there is no one to turn to, especially not parents, and must quietly bear what comes his way.  Consequently, a sexually abused child grows up with the psychological scars—infused with a baseless guilt and a growing sense of “filthiness” — lying dormant and internalized throughout childhood and spilling into adulthood.

‘I started talking, but my mother couldn’t believe a word I said. In the end she just cut me short, saying ok beta, don’t go to your uncle next time then. Chacha doesn’t do wrong things like that: take these foolish ideas out of your mind,’–Counseling for Child Sexual Abuse, a documentary by Sahil.

Sahil, an NGO working in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and the Northern Areas, has done some laudable work with sexually abused children. They take legal action against the pedophiles brought to their attention, filing FIRs and having the perpetrators jailed. The NGO conducts a Juvenile Rehabilitation Program in Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi, offering counseling, medicines, education and recreation to adolescent inmates and generally helping them stay out of harm’s way. At the same time, Sahil strives constantly to bring the issue to the public eye but raising awareness isn’t easy. Occasionally a sympathetic journalist might make room for a critical piece on the issue, but such cases are few and far between. Sahil fights a difficult battle in its effort to get the issue out there through radio and talk shows.

Another NGO working extensively on the issue is Rozan. Their children’s program, Aangan, keeps devising interesting new ways of interacting with its young audience. One such endeavour is Tinku and Tina, an informative, engaging cartoon clip that should be considered a must-watch for the adults in their lives too.

NGO Aahung is the brains behind the radio campaign. Through a multi-pronged approach, Aahung’s “Hamara Kal” (Our Future) program strives to build awareness and ground capacity of 3 sister NGOs, 450 schools, over 150 health practitioners, and politicians and policy makers in key positions. Branching out in this way, they shall directly reach upto 150,000 young people in Karachi, Multan and Matiari districts and indirectly affect 1 million young lives.

On 19th April 2009, Aahung in collaboration with child abuse NGO Konpal celebrated Universal Children’s Day with the launch of a month-long radio campaign. The messages, saying “NO!” to child sexual abuse, were distributed to multiple radio channels for nationwide coverage. The campaign was accompanied by a helpline, answered by a trained psychologist to help concerned parents with information, basic counseling and referrals. For continued media campaigns, Aahung has partnered with Rozan which already has an established helpline at 0800-22444, operational 7 days a week from 10 am to 8 pm.  The proactive initiative has become the stuff of drawing room conversations and encouragingly, people are now talking about protecting their children from sexual abuse. With this unparalleled collaboration, Aahung, Konpal and Rozan have given the issue sufficient airtime to get the ball rolling.

This approach is commendable for its simple brilliance. Nervous little voices are now being given a patient ear. With the voices rising and gaining pitch, we can no longer remain silent about this plague on our society, whose warts and tumors we are beginning to see. One must answer the awkward radio spots, must justify or explain them, must wave a dismissive hand at them – but blissful ignorance can no longer wish reality away.

Naveen Naqvi, The Silent Ones. 29th Sept 2009. http://naveenaqvi.com/2009/09/29/the-silent-ones/
Pseudonyms have been substituted where appropriate.

An investment professional by day, Sarah Abidi lends her voice to pertinent issues others seek to silence. She served as Prose Editor for Desi Writer’s Lounge‘s e-zine, Papercuts. She enjoys photography, classical and rock music she can warble, Rubik’s Cubes and the great outdoors.