Between four walls: sweeping sexual abuse under the carpet

11 July 2011

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.

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Responses to this post

Cannot happen in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This is hindu/zionist/American propoganda.
Anonymous - 6 years 28 weeks ago
unfortunately sexual abuse can and happens everywhere. i am not aware of any country and society free of violence against women, wish i am wrong. Many studies documents children and women are most frequently sexually abused by someone they know, often a member of their own family (see for example - a wall of silence which surrounds sexually abuse in family has disastrous implications for victims/survivors By the way, have you heard that Pakistan ranks 3rd on list of most dangerous countries for women - - propaganda again? PurpleDuck
Anonymous - 6 years 28 weeks ago

Dear i can only say that what you are thinking is right in a way that it is Islamic Republic of Pakistan but i am witness to these kind of sexual harassment in Pakistan and personally knows this. we can pray only for a nation who real understand what Islam is and what does Islamic republic of Pakistan means. These kind of pigs( Sorry for my bad wording but even they deserve more) are in a large number in Pakistan.
May Allah give us strength and right way to live our lives.

Anonymous - 3 years 17 weeks ago
Stunnedafter reading this..................
Anonymous - 6 years 28 weeks ago
I feel so sick after reading this. Sexual abuse is everywhere, and no country is safe from this evil. We have heard a lot of such stories and I don't want to read new ones. I want solutions. I want the evil to stop. However I am a little skeptical about the helpline but then it might be a good first step. I really appreciate Nighat's and Shahzad's work and wish them all the luck and pray they win this fight against the evil.
Anonymous - 6 years 28 weeks ago
As Jac says below, a big part of the solution is teaching children that if someone touches you in a way you do not like, you have the right to say no, and that you should not keep this a secret. Children with hearing and speech disabilities are statistically more likely to be abused because the abuser thinks they can't "tell" other people what has happened to them. It's really important that all children receive sex and rights education so that they cannot be taken advantage of in this way. This innovative project in Uruguay works with children with and without hearing disabilities and video to understand what rights they have and live as they say "without violence". In this one the deaf children teach viewers how to understand the term "Help me" in sign language as well as state their rights. It's conveyed simply at a level that children can understand and take on board.
Anonymous - 6 years 27 weeks ago
Have you referred her to Shirkat Gah? They can also provide counsel on what steps she can take at least legally should she want to. But this is a hard hard situation, and the important thing to let her know is that she is really not alone. Everytime I speak about my sexual abuse experience as a child, at least 3 other people would share their their story with me. And somehow, we managed to survive it and come out the other side, much stronger people. It's tough when the livelihood of the entire family depends on the abuser, and there is no social support by the state. Saying no sometimes makes all the difference. Because it shows the abuser that you are a person, who can think and act. Not a child or property that you can do anything to and get away with it. There's a risk involved, and you'd have to make a calculated decision about whether it's the right time for it. And if you have younger sisters, teach them how to say no. But don't feel ashamed to tell people what has happened. It's not your fault, and it's not your shame. It's the shame and the guilt of the person who chooses to violate another person's right this way. The more the abuse doesn't hide in silence and secrecy, the less the abuse is able to continue without repercussions. Find people whom you trust and who can support you, friends, teachers, activists. Talk through your experience, it hurts less and less each time, and it'll take time to heal, so give yourself that gentleness and time. And moving away from shame helps a lot with this. Your body is your own, no one has the right to define it for you. Then talk about strategies. What can you do. People you can call when it happens. Or get people to call and interrupt the normality of it happening. Let him know people know, and are watching. Let him be judged. And be prepared to fight. Be strong. And keep your friends close. They will give you the strength you need when things look impossible. Surround yourself with acceptance and love. And you have an ally in me, even if I'm far away. You're not alone. And you're definitely not "damaged" :) You'll be fine! Take it from one survivor :) jac
Anonymous - 6 years 27 weeks ago
Dear Anonymus... Plz keep your comments to yourself ... After reading this story I m so shocked and sad but this is the BITTER TRUTH ... Happening Everywhere :-(
Anonymous - 6 years 27 weeks ago
Incest is not new even developed countries like USA UK France face problems like these. Things that add to these abuses are drinking habits in majority of the cases the culprit happens to be in heavy alcohol influence.
Anonymous - 6 years 27 weeks ago
I personally knew number of victims/survivors who were abused by their fathers/grandfathers neither of them have drinking habits. it is documented that sexual abuse and violence against women and child is more linked to imbalance of power between women vs men, parents vs child, employer vs employee and less correlate with abusers level of education, economical states, race etc....
Anonymous - 6 years 27 weeks ago
This court case proves the fact that after all what Nighat wrote is not the USA/Hindu/Zionist propaganda. See the link
Anonymous - 6 years 26 weeks ago

Hi, i need help, my girlfriend is being sexually, physically and emotionally assaulted by her half brother, I knew that it happened in the past but she told me it stopped. I recently realized that it has not! I found out horrible things that he has done in the past which he told me, I pretended to be his friend so I could see my girlfriend more, because obviously he didn’t allow her to go out much. Her mother is so emotionally scarred that she allows it to happen for he provides for them. His money is now finished and I can and want to provide and give them a better home of course! I can’t allow this to continue. He makes me look bad infront of her mother so she won’t allow me to look after them. I threatened him with SMS’s saying if he touches them again I will go to the policee, I realized that this was the wrong way to go and I desperately need help!!!!!!

Anonymous - 5 years 45 weeks ago

It’s hard to know which suggestions to give as each locality has different options. Some communities have police forces and community resource centers that would respond properly if notified of the abuse – others might not even think this is abuse depending on cultural norms and the way that violence against women is accepted and de-prioritised in so many cultures… But without a doubt you must find out if there are local resource centers – perhaps a women’s organisation or documentation center? – that you can turn to for help and advice. If you are able to communicate with your girlfriend be careful – remember that sometimes aggressors monitor phone calls and internet communication and she could be put at further risk. Read the Be-safe section of Take Back the Tech! ( to find out more about how this can happen and how to take measures against it. Certainly if the women in question have mobility and can turn to other support structures themselves directly, get them phone numbers and addresses so they can proceed.

ES - 5 years 45 weeks ago

my daughters were sexually abused by their father/step father..he plead guilty and is in prison. the youngest is 4, 10, 18, 18. two of them were his own daughters who succumbed the worst. Thank God the youngest spoke out about it, he threatened their lives and physically and mentally scared them, but the truth came out. They no longer have to live with that abuse, it is a grim future with a father sexually abusing them, and a father in prison..apparently the grandfathers and uncles did this type of abuse when he was a is evil!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous - 3 years 9 weeks ago

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