Madrasas in Pakistan: The urgent call for child protection reform and accountability

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A prayer leader and head of a seminary- MadressahJamia Al-Habibia, along with his senior student gang-raped a nine-year-old boy in the Hamayatabad area of Khanewal City in Punjab province, as reported on May 1, 2023.

The child told the police he was gang-raped by his teacher and a senior student in the hujra of ‘Qari Sahib’ at night between April 29-30.

Khanewal City Police Station House Officer (SHO) Saad Bin Saeed informed that both the suspects, namely the head of the madrasa (religious seminary) and a senior student, had been arrested. 

He said both the suspects were taken into custody from the seminary within two hours of the report.

Police booked the suspects under various sections of the PPC on the complaint of the victim’s uncle.

This is not an isolated incident. 

The list of such cases goes on and has kept growing with every passing year, prompting for calls and demands of culpability.

For years, it has been mutely acknowledged that many madrasas in Pakistan are centers of sexual abuse, where children sent in to receive a religious education are frequently exploited, harassed, molested and raped by the teachers.

Child sex abuse in Pakistan’s religious schools is prevalent and complaints from parents and relatives rarely lead to the arrest of accused religious clerics. An investigation by The Associated Press in May 2020 found dozens of police reports alleging sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic clerics teaching in madrassas, or religious schools, throughout Pakistan. Many of the students who study in the madrassas are poor.

Many families, overcome by shame and fear that the stigma of being sexually abused will follow a child into adulthood, choose instead to drop the charges or are often coerced into “forgiving” clerics.

More than 2.2 million children study in over 36,000 registered and unregistered madrasas in Pakistan.

An overwhelming majority of the students are from impoverished parts of Pakistan's northwestern, western and eastern provinces.

Several factors contribute to sexual assaults in seminaries.clerics often target vulnerable children because they know that children's claims of sexual abuse are much less likely to be believed.

This prompts them [the children] to not report such cases of sexual assaults. This in turn encourages clerics to go on doing what they do with liberty.

However, from administrative point of view, the abuse case inside the madrasas is even more seldom prosecuted. 

Police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics. And cases rarely make it past the courts, because Pakistan's legal system allows the victim's family to “forgive” the offender and accept what is often referred to as “blood money.” 

As early as in 2004, a Pakistani official disclosed more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys in madrasas.

Besides, Islamic clergy's influential political position leads to a lack of accountability at madrasas.

It gets exceedingly difficult to investigate sexual abuse claims.

Such charges are also foolishly seen as an attack on Islam.

To claim that accusing a religious cleric of sexual abuse will somehow taint the religion he practices or has studied is a complete logical fallacy. 

If any group tries to probe the matter, the clerics could use their position to accuse them of blasphemy or of being a "foreign agent."Social pressure can also avert parents from reporting cases when they become aware of the abuse, allowing it to continue. 

Technically, Pakistan is further hindered by a terrible lack of modern facilities that could accelerate the collection of evidence and the verification of allegations. The country has only one forensic laboratory.

 In addition, many madrasas provide free of coast food, a lodging and basic education to thousands of children from economically deprived background.  

Consequently, even when cases of sexual abuse do emerge, many families are simply reluctant to take action against the institution which is ‘looking after’ their child. Due to monetary dependency, thus, many parents remain silent.

Sadly, a report titled ‘Cruel Number’ complied by Sahil, an NGO working for the protection of children in Pakistan has revealed that a total of 4,253 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in 2022.

Based on the statistics, the number of abused children in Pakistan is estimated to be more than 12 per day.

The gender divide shows that out of the total reported cases of child abuse, 2,325 victims were girls (55%) and 1,928 (45%) boys.

Alarmingly, the report indicated that the cases of child sexual abuse had increased by more than 33% as compared to 2021. In 2022, the reported cases of sexual abuse fell under the major categories of abduction (1,656 children), rape (422 children), sodomy (537 children), gang rape (75 children), gang sodomy (156 children). 

There was a total of 2,123 cases of child sexual abuse with both genders equally victimized. Further, the total number of cases regarding murder after sexual abuse were reported to be 81. 

Most unfortunately, this data showed that in the list of perpetrators of child sexual abuse, the victim's acquaintances and family members were the highest in number. 
The geographical distribution of the data showed that of the total 4,253 cases, the majority of them were reported in Punjab. However, all other provinces also recorded cases of child abuse.

The crisis is further exacerbated by the absence of effective governmental oversight over the vast number of religious seminaries scattered across Pakistan. 

Nasreen Jalil, the former chairperson of the Senate Committee on Human Rights, voiced concerns over this issue, stating, "Religious clerics autonomously devise their curriculum, accumulate funds, and utilize them as they see fit.

Whenever accountability measures are undertaken in response to registered cases, these clerics deploy their influence and intimidation tactics to stifle the process. This persistent impunity fosters an environment that emboldens the commitment of crimes against children."

Moreover, the fact that numerous religious seminaries in Pakistan remain unregistered creates significant challenges in monitoring their operations. Without formal oversight from state or primary religious authorities, a multitude of abuses faced by students in these unregistered institutions go unreported. 

Consequently, this unchecked environment enables predatory individuals to repeatedly victimize children without fear of repercussions, perpetuating a cycle of exploitation and harm

The heinous acts that transpire within these religious seminaries necessitate a vehement response from Pakistan's religious leadership.

It is incumbent upon these religious leaders to publicly decry such behaviour and demand the diligent reporting of any improprieties unfolding within madrasas.

Their influence over these institutions places them in a position to not only acknowledge recent instances of abuse but also to instigate prompt measures promoting transparency within the madrasa system.

Additionally, a comprehensive awareness campaign addressing assault and sexual harassment is urgently needed. 

This would serve as an essential tool to enlighten children and their parents about the insidious nature of such activities, emphasizing that such incidents should never be overlooked or ignored, as is currently the case.

It is high time that the veil of silence surrounding these issues be lifted, to pave the way for a safer and more nurturing environment for children within these religious cum academic institutions. 

Only by openly confronting and combatting these deeply ingrained issues, can we begin to ensure the integrity of religious education, fostering a climate of respect, safety, and true spiritual enlightenment for all learners.

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