The photo above, showing a distraught Pakistani mother, Kausar Parveen, comforting her nine-year-old son who had been raped in an Islamic school by a Muslim cleric, appears today in a shocking AP report about widespread sexual abuse of children in madrassas across the country.
The AP investigation found that sexual abuse in the madrassas is a pervasive problem. But in a culture where clerics are powerful and sexual abuse is a taboo subject, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged.
The AP found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clerics reported in the past decade, and officials suspect there are many more within a far-reaching system that teaches at least two million children in Pakistan.
The investigation was based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, relatives, former and current ministers, aid groups and religious officials.
The fear of clerics and the militant religious organisations that sometimes support them came through clearly. One senior official in a ministry tasked with registering these cases says many madrassas are “infested” with sexual abuse.
He compares the situation to the abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church.
There are thousands of incidences of sexual abuse in the madrassas. This thing is very common …
Pakistan’s clerics close ranks when the madrassa system is too closely scrutinised, he says. Among the weapons they use to frighten their critics is a controversial blasphemy law that carries a death penalty in the case of a conviction.
This is not a small thing here in Pakistan – I am scared of them and what they can do. I am not sure what it will take to expose the extent of it. It’s very dangerous to even try.
A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past ten years of sexual abuse by maulvis or clerics and other religious officials came to 359. That represents “barely the tip of the iceberg,” says Munizae Bano, executive director of Sahil, the organization that scours the newspapers and works against sexual abuse of minors.
In 2004, a Pakistani official disclosed more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys in madrassas. He has since refused to talk, and there have been no significant arrests or prosecutions.
Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf dismisses the suggestion that sexual abuse is widespread, saying such talk is an attempt to malign the religion, seminaries and clerics.
He says he was not aware of even the cases reported in the newspapers, but that it could occur occasionally “because there are criminals everywhere”. Yousaf says the reform and control of madrassas is the job of the interior ministry.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees madrassas, refused repeated written and telephone requests for an interview.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan. The students they teach are often among the country’s poorest, who receive food and an education for free.
Many more madrassas – small two- or three-room seminaries in villages throughout Pakistan – are unregistered, opened by a graduate of another madrassa, often without any education other than a proficiency in the Koran. They operate without scrutiny, ignored by the authorities, say residents living nearby.
The “keepers” of madrassas are notoriously reluctant to accept government oversight or embrace reforms, according to I A Rehman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which makes sexual abuse harder to prevent.
This is one of those things, you know, which everybody knows is going on and happening, but evidence is very scarce.
As the religious right has grown stronger in Pakistan, clerics who were once dependent on village leaders for handouts, even food, have risen in stature. With this rise, reporting of sexual abuse in madrassas has trickled off, said human rights lawyer Saif-ul Mulk. Mulk has police protection because of death threats from militants outraged by his defence of a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting Islam.
Everyone is so afraid of the mullahs today.
The fear that surrounds sexual abuse by clerics means that justice is rare. Payoffs from offending mullahs to police means that they often refuse to even register a case, says Azam Hussain, a union councilor in Kehrore Pakka. And the families involved are often poor and powerless.
Poor people are afraid, so they don’t say anything. Police help the mullah. Police don’t help the poor … Poor people know this, so they don’t even go to the police.
This is particularly true in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, where more than 60 percent of its 200 million people live. Even Pakistan’s own Punjab provincial anti-corruption department in a 2014 report listed the Punjab police as the province’s most corrupt department. Police say they investigate when a complaint is made, but they have no authority to take a case forward when the family accepts money, which often happens.
The top police officer in the district center of Multan, Deputy Inspector General of Police Sultan Azam Temuri – pictured above with two youngsters who attended a police summer camp – denies that pressure from clerics or powerful politicians prompts police to go easy in such cases. He says cases are investigated when allegations are made. Temuri says his department is trying to tackle child abuse in general with the introduction of gender and child protection services.
A similar legal provision was changed last year to prevent forgiveness of “honour” killings, where victims are murdered because they are thought to have brought shame on their families. Honour killings now carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison, but clerics in sexual abuse cases can still be forgiven.
Sahil, the organization that scours newspapers for cases of sexual assault, offers families legal aid to pursue such cases. Last year, Sahil found 56 cases of sexual assault involving religious clerics. None of the families accepted Sahil’s offer of legal assistance.
In cases that are pursued, convictions do occasionally happen.
In south Punjab, a cleric was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor girl in 2016 and sentenced to 12 years in prison and the equivalent of a $1,500 fine. The same cleric had in the past managed to get several families to settle over sexual abuse cases because of his close links to religious extremist groups, said local officials. This time, a local activist group known as Roshan Pakistan, or Bright Pakistan, persuaded the family of the young girl to resist.
In the end, the mother “forgave” the cleric and accepted $300 (£226), according to police.
The cleric was set free.