This story was first published on 18th July 2016.

Are you aware that you could be related to an abuser, or worse, living under a roof with one?

Last year, 10 cases of child sexual abuse occurred every day -- that’s a total of 3,378 reported cases in Pakistan. Of those reported, 1,943 abusers were acquaintances while 829 were strangers, states Cruel Numbers 2015, a study compiled by NGO Sahil on child abuse cases in the country.

These are uncomfortably large numbers to digest.


“Every night before I would go to bed, my uncle's son would tell me that if he touches me, I will sleep better and I won't have any bad dreams. I was 7 years old when it all started.”


As an alarmingly high number of children fell victim to sexual abuse last year -- a 7 percent rise from 2014 -- it's high time minors are educated about protecting themselves from this atrocious crime.

Two undergraduate students from SZABIST, Maham Idrees and Mehr Iqbal, have planned to do just that. The young women decided to take a stand against child sexual abuse and created an independent Facebook page in September 2015 called Untangled Knots. Here, they invited people to share their stories of abuse.

“We made the page as part of a school project. The assignment required us to cater to a social problem in Pakistan using technology and the web. We got inspired by Talk, Dammit and started our own page for sexual abuse victims," explained Maham.

The purpose of this open platform is to encourage people to share their stories and seek professional help, if desired. Initially, it was just Maham and Mehr's friends who shared their stories on the page. Soon, others became comfortable with the idea of opening up online and more stories started trickling in.

An open forum

As Untangled Knots gained traction, stories started pouring in from friends and anonymous.

"The good part was, the people affected were talking about it; they were addressing the issue and there was relatability. Many were commenting on other people's stories of having faced the same ordeal," said Maham.

One such instance involved a married male teacher at Foundation Public School in Karachi. A member anonymously posted her experience of being abused by the teacher while going to his house for tuitions, instantly other girls reached out to her also claiming to have been harassed by the same teacher.


"He put his hand on my skirt and kept pinching my thighs till I kept my other leg down so he could freely touch me down there."


Untangled Knots thus served as an outlet for survivors who did not have the necessary access to psychological help.

"In Pakistan, people don't go to psychologists because it's a taboo," pointed out Maham.

"It's also the money factor and inhibitions. People are confused about where they should go, whether they should go or not, whether their problem is big enough or not," she added.

For this reason, the two students thought to keep the page active and running, even after completing the requirement of their project.

Children learning about sexual abuse at a summer camp conducted by Maham and Mehr. Photo: Facebook
Children learning about sexual abuse at a summer camp conducted by Maham and Mehr. Photo: Facebook

"It requires effort [running the page]. The words used have to be modified. Since many posts that were submitted to us were anonymous and contained words like 'sex,' we couldn't use them, such words make people uncomfortable, so we had to tweak stories and make sure our posts didn't offend anyone," shared Maham.

Almost all stories on their page reveal the abuser to be a relative, which as Maham explained, makes it more difficult for the child to stand up against the perpetrator or bring up the issue with other family members.


“I tried telling my mom but she never paid attention. She would take it lightly and say 'Bacha hay janay do’. Soon afterwards he started touching me. Because my mom shut me up the first time, I never had the power to speak up again.”


After reaching out to a few members, they also discovered that parents often turn a deaf ear towards their children's pleas for intervention. Consequently, the people affected find it hard to open up about it when the issue was raised again.

"The issue is, many had told their mothers about the abuse, but they were told 'chup ho kar bayth jao' (be quiet and settle down). One mother even said 'at least he didn't penetrate.' Parents are not ready to accept or talk about the abuse because when it's a girl, it comes down to her marriage. 'Nobody will want her because she has been touched' [is the main concern]," said the psychology student.

"It's also about breaking the family apart," added Mehr. "The child is burdened with keeping the 'secret' lest the family is torn apart."


"Sometimes, adults, in order to deal with their pain, ruin their children's lives."


This silencing usually comes at a cost, causing the child to feel at fault for the doings of the abuser. This alone leads to a number of psychological problems and unhealthy relationships (with family and friends) in the future.

Parents need to step in

The responsibility lies in the hands of parents to educate their children about this crime.

However, in a country where anything even remotely related to sex is considered taboo, sexual abuse education for children is considered a no-no.

"Parents should be the ones talking to their kids about sexual abuse, but they shy away from it and most things that need to be discussed. For example, many girls at the age of 13 still wear trainer bras instead of proper bras because their mothers don't educate them about their body. The same goes for periods," explained Maham.

Ironically, when these young girls took up the cause and spoke to people about child sexual abuse, the response they received was, "Tum toh hijab karti ho, tum aisi baatein kaisey kar sakhti ho? (You cover your head, how can you talk about such things?)."

Left: Children pointing out their private parts as part of the seminar. Right: Maham teaching children about the 'see' alert. Photo: Facebook
Left: Children pointing out their private parts as part of the seminar. Right: Maham teaching children about the 'see' alert. Photo: Facebook

Speaking of outward appearances, Maham explained that the hijab and beards play a major role in how we perceive a person's mien.

She narrated the story of a girl who was abused by her Quran teacher while her mother was watching TV in the other room, oblivious to what's happening in her own home.

"When such incidents take place, you can not see the emotional trauma a child goes through. It's not tangible. It impacts their entire life, it's not in the past, it becomes a part of their life," highlighted Mehr.


“Today I heard a friend say that talking helped her, but she's a girl, I'm a boy. Society makes fun of boys. If boys get raped it's more of a taboo because somehow it snatches away our masculinity.”


Nowadays, children are in close proximity with the household working staff; being picked and dropped by drivers, being taken care of by nannies.

"We asked a few mothers why they don't drop their children to school and choose to let them go alone with drivers: four mothers said, 'Kaun tayar ho ga subha' (who will get ready in the morning), and one said she couldn't because she had to send lunch to her husband at work and couldn't risk sending it late," said Maham.

Awareness

Maham and Mehr then decided to step in and take charge of the situation by approaching schools to conduct child sexual abuse seminars for children.

"We started contacting schools, and got in touch with people, but were refused each time. Some schools flat out said no, others asked parents who disapproved, saying, 'abhi toh bachay bohat chhotay hain,' (the kids are very young right now) but that's ridiculous, 'Koi poochh kay touch thori kareyga ap kay bachay ko kay woh bara hai ya chhota' (Nobody is going to ask your kid whether he/she is big enough or not before touching him/her),"she added.

Two of the five alerts. Each child was asked to explain the different alerts and how to respond in such situations. Photo: Facebook
Two of the five alerts. Each child was asked to explain the different alerts and how to respond in such situations. Photo: Facebook

The girls then decided to call summer schools since most schools had already closed for the holidays, and they received the same response -- no, the topic is too sensitive for kids. Only one summer camp, Summer Explorers, allowed these girls to conduct their seminar.

"We kept it basic and taught them about five alerts; hold alert: when someone’s holding you tight enough for it to hurt or hugs you in a way where he/she can touch your private parts; talk alert: talking about private parts and asking to keep dirty secrets; touch alert: when someone touches your private parts; alone alert: when someone takes you to an empty room/street to play with you; see alert: when some peeks inside your clothes or wants to see you naked or wants you to see their private parts," explained Maham.


“He was my own brother and 12 years older to me. I never talked to him properly; I don’t know how actually brothers are.”


Their first seminar was a success, with teachers and students actively participating in the session.

"We created different scenarios and asked the children how they would respond to them. After their response we told them how they should respond, for example when a driver puts them on their lap asking if they want to drive, they should immediately say no," said the 20-year-old.

They incorporated a reward system by handing out children badges and stickers every time they responded with the correct answer. This was also a way to show parents that their children had had a seminar on child sexual abuse and start a discussion at home on the topic.

Children were handed out badges and stickers if they answered questions correctly. This was also a way for parents to learn about what their children were taught in school that day. Photo: Facebook
Children were handed out badges and stickers if they answered questions correctly. This was also a way for parents to learn about what their children were taught in school that day. Photo: Facebook

At the end of the seminar, each child was handed a duck balloon and asked to identify their private parts by placing stickers on it.

"Our main aim is to get parents involved. We want them to know what their child did at school today and what they learnt," Maham explained.

What started as a Facebook page has now become an on and offline social campaign to tackle the issue of sexual abuse in our society. Maham and Mehr are still on the lookout for O and A level schools, even universities who are willing to come on board with their plan. In the future they hope to expand the scope of their awareness to domestic abuse and sexual harassment at work.

"Initially we were aiming for a certain age group, etc, but after being turned away from schools repeatedly we have now kept our options open. As long as we get a school on board, we're happy," said Maham.

Maham and Mehr with teachers and children of summer camp Summer Explorers. Photo: Facebook
Maham and Mehr with teachers and children of summer camp Summer Explorers. Photo: Facebook

But it's not a one-off thing. Seminars like these need to be arranged regularly in order for the child to grasp the idea.

"We cannot do one seminar and expect the child to know better. This needs to be reinforced at least three to four times before the child fully understands and retains all the information, which is why it is crucial that parents partake in this and educate their child on the matter," added Maham.

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