Between four walls: sweeping sexual abuse under the carpet
The first time she was sexually abused, she was 14 years old. She broke into tears while telling me her story. I met this girl at the “Take Back The Tech” event, in Peshawar, where she came to me after my session on sexual harassment and cyber legislation. She asked me, “what should a girl do when she has been facing sexual abuse from her biological father for the last 6 years?” I was numbed.
She told me how, being brought up in an educated Peshawar family, she never thought she would face this abuse within the four walls of her own home. She revealed that her first memory of sexual abuse came from when she was about 14 years old. Her father got her alone in the house and started touching her in a sexual way. Terrified and confused, she squirmed and kicked her father but he grabbed her and threatened her not to tell anyone; after that he regularly started coming into her bedroom and touched her while she was sleeping.
The girl told her mother, so most of her family knew about it already and her mother let this happen under her nose just to save her own family life. She described feeling powerless and alone:
“My mother thinks that resistance is dangerous and useless and that if she ever asks her husband to stop sexually abusing his own daughter, he will throw us out including my five sisters. My mother always asks me: "where will we go then, who will give us shelter?”
At that moment the young girl erupted. Years of pent up emotion rose to the surface.
“My mother is able to stop this but the ugly realization is that in reality she fails as a protector, as a real mother!”
She went on: “I am always scared and the slightest sound in the room wakes me up. I have been carrying this burden for more than six years and I have struggled with this secret that is literally eating me from the inside out. I told this to my friend and she advised me to go to the police and lodge a complaint. But like you know, you can't just do that. I want to kill myself or kill him if he ever touches me in any way...Please tell me what to do. I am desperate, I've come down with Manic Depression. I feel dirty - so dirty.”
Her story made me feel sick to my stomach; I was shocked and numbed, and didn’t know what to tell her at first. I can’t even imagine that any father can do this to his own daughter, he who is supposed to take care of her. It feels so disgusting, filthy and sickening...
I advised her to speak up against this abuse, and to start by telling the abuser that you intend to report it to an organisation working for victims of sexual harassment. It’s you who has to speak up first and not suffer in silence. It has taken great inner strength just to put up with this abuse for all of those years, and if you decide to do so, you can use that strength to speak out. He is depending on one thing to hurt you like that: fear. He is depending on the fact that he scares you. If you break free from that fear, you can end this sad story written by someone else, and move forward by writing a better one of your own.
On my way back to home we kept texting each other, I wanted to give her support and counsel her from the guilt, the shame which is making her feel worthless, the fear that something terrible will happen if she reveals the truth about her father, the grief of losing her sense of innocence and freedom, the feeling of helplessness and the state of despair, how to take away all these negative emotions from abuse victims which come up after being sexually abused by the head of her own family!
Among other things, I realised that there is a pressing need to set up counselling centres to help sexual harassment victims. Counselling is extremely important because of the damage that may come from abuse whose very existence our society often denies. If victims of sexual abuse know there is somewhere where they can speak out without fear of judgement or reprisal, this will help encourage them to do so, and thus take the first step towards dealing with and ending their abuse.
As a first step I suggest that we launch a nationwide counselling telephone line where victims can seek guidance about sexual abuse - so that help and counselling are just a call away. I strongly believe this would give most people in Pakistan the practical means to contact someone for that vital first piece of support and help.
It can only be a first step, though. As this girl's story so shockingly illustrates, it's no use offering someone a telephone helpline if their physical safety could also be at risk.
Dealing with the problem of sexual abuse in Pakistan will require a great many changes, both practical and social. It is to our shame that the problem is still being swept under the carpet: we should not add to that by failing to make the necessary changes for the future.