Pakistan: What is behind incidents of child sexual abuse in madrasas | Asia | An in-depth look at current events from across the continent | DW
A recent sexual abuse case involving a madrasa student and a prominent religious leader in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore has rocked the country.
The case involved Mufti Aziz ur Rehman and his student Sabir Shah, who told DW that the cleric had sexually assaulted him for over a year.
Rehman belonged to Jamiat Ulema Islam, the organization of religious scholars who believe in an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam.
It was not an isolated incident. Shortly after, a video of child sexual abuse involving a Shia cleric appeared. In May 2017, a nine-year-old boy was raped by a cleric in Pak Pattan; in 2018, a Lahore-based cleric was convicted of raping a minor; and in 2019, a 13-year-old disabled girl was sexually assaulted by a cleric in Multan.
These cases have given rise to calls for accountability in Pakistan. Many blame religious seminaries. But clerics vehemently reject the fact that their educational institutions are at fault.
More than 2.2 million children study in more than 36,000 registered and unregistered madrasas in this South Asian country. The overwhelming majority of students come from poor areas of the northwest, western and eastern provinces of Pakistan.
Many religious schools also provide students with free residence and meals.
‘Pious’ religious take on vulnerable children
Experts told DW that a number of factors contribute to sexual assault in seminars.
“I have come across a number of cases where young children have been sexually assaulted by clerics,” Lahore-based clinical psychologist Dr Naila Aziz told DW.
She said that clerics are generally under mental stress and are often sexually frustrated, trying to suppress their sexual desires as a demonstration of their devout faith.
Some clerics then target vulnerable children because they know that allegations of child sexual abuse are much less likely to be believed. This “prompts them [the children] not to report such cases of sexual assault. This in turn encourages religious people to continue doing what they do with impunity. “
Little responsibility for the powerful Pakistani clergy
Some critics in Pakistan believe that the powerful political position of the Islamic clergy leads to a lack of accountability in the madrasas.
Former Senate human rights committee chair Nasreen Jalil said clerics are using their political power to cover up their crimes of sexual abuse. If you opened an investigation against a madrasa, religious leaders would call by phone, asking for the investigation to stop, Jalil told DW. She added that lawmakers censor themselves when it comes to investigating cases of sexual assault in religious schools and other issues related to clerics as a result.
This culture of power and intimidation means that: âThere is no responsibility for these religious. They teach the program of their choice, raise funds and use it in their own way. This lack of accountability has encouraged them to commit crimes against children as well. “said Jalil.
Pakistan Child Rights Movement national coordinator Mumtaz Gohar agrees. He told DW that it was difficult to send an investigative team to investigate the allegations of sexual abuse. If a group attempted to investigate the case, clerics could use their powerful position to accuse them of blasphemy or of being a “foreign agent.”
If a team succeeds in gaining access to a madrasa, then there will be no cooperation: âChildren will not speak against clerics out of fear and clerics will certainly not tell you anything. It is this sense of impunity that encourages them to continue in such activities, âGohar said.
Parents are under pressure not to report abuse
Social pressure can also prevent parents from reporting cases when they become aware of the abuse, which means it continues.
Noor Muhammad Fazli from Chakwal district in Punjab, whose nephew was assaulted by a local cleric, says parents of four girls who were molested by the same cleric withdrew their claims due to growing social pressure.
This despite the fact that the accused confessed to the sexual assault.
It is this social pressure that emboldens these clerics, he said, saying that if society opposes them, they cannot target “our children.”
Lahore-based analyst Ahsan Raza explained that clerics are often worshiped in villages. Even if found guilty, a cleric is often pardoned or the case covered up by order of the traditional village advisory board where clerics have supporters and supporters, Raza told DW.
Pakistan has only one forensic laboratory
Pakistan is further hampered by a dire lack of modern facilities that could speed up the gathering of evidence and the verification of allegations made.
The country has only one forensic lab and it took the lab four months to investigate a case, a police investigator told DW on condition of anonymity.
âThe lab is inundated with cases and it takes months to prepare reports. This delays the proceedings, creating problems for the families of the victims, prompting them to withdraw the cases, encouraging the perpetrators, âshe explained.
Clerics refute allegations
Religious parties and clerics claim that madrasas are the target of defamation from NGOs and secular organizations.
A torrent of criticism has been unleashed by some elements against religious schools, but in reality sexual assaults rarely occur in such places, disputed Jalal Uddin, head of Jamiat Ulema Islam.
Mohammad Nazir Farooqui, who belongs to the Maroof ul Quran madrasa in Islamabad, said that there is a strict system of accountability and that it is wrong to think that such incidents are widespread.
Most madrasas fulfill their religious duties by providing education, he told DW, adding that these places of religious education have their own accountability system that does not condone such crimes.
“All clerics and religious parties have condemned such acts and demanded that those involved be brought to justice. Despite all this, certain elements continue to tarnish the image of the seminars,” Farooqui added.