Her grades had been deteriorating throughout the term. As students shuffled out of the classroom, she became anxious at the idea of flunking and disappointing her parents. Then her teacher told her to stay behind after class.
Sidra, 18, whose name has been changed in this article for safety reasons, felt tears welling up in her eyes as her teacher closed the door and approached her. He began to reprimand her for her poor performance.
“He shouted at me and made me cry. He said I was ruining my chances of a good future. Out of nowhere, his face changed and he began smiling. He told me that he could change my grade if I did something for him,” Sidra told VICE World News. “Before I could even think of a response, he forced himself on me. I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
The incident occured in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. It was followed by a series of assaults after school at the teacher’s home. “He said that if I didn’t meet him, he would tell my parents that I had seduced him. He would film it. He told me that he would show them the videos,” said Sidra.
She is not alone. There have been at least half a dozen incidents of sexual assault reported in Pakistani media this year in which perpetrators in positions of authority at educational institutes filmed and blackmailed students and staff with threats that their videos would be released online. Experts say the culture of shame in reporting sexual assault, unchecked authority in Pakistani schools, and the accessibility of tools that can be used for blackmail all contribute to the surge in assault cases.
“There have been many reported incidents in different cities and in different institutions that you come to know of, with staff blackmailing and harassing students and teachers. We have seen a massive increase in this. Prior to information communication technology, this wasn't reported before but because cyber crime is very active now, complaints are exponentially increasing,” a cybercrime official who is not authorized to speak to press, told VICE World News on condition of anonymity.
On Wednesday, a teacher was arrested in the southeastern city of Sukkur for allegedly raping and blackmailing students with compromising videos. Last week, the owner of a private school in the city of Dera Ghazi Khan was arrested by police for sexually assaulting, recording and blackmailing female students – after the assault videos went viral on social media. In April, police detained a seminary teacher who was accused of sexually assaulting and filming five students in Chakwal city in the country’s Punjab province.
As in Sidra’s case, sexual assault followed by blackmail by teachers and staff reportedly often start with threats of expulsion or failing marks. Assaulters start a vicious cycle of abuse by filming the assault and then blackmailing survivors with threats of releasing the videos online. Students who report the crimes to their families are often silenced for fear of social stigma.
Although statistics of sexual assaults and subsequent blackmail at educational institutions are not readily available, the Federal Investigation Agency’s Cyber Crime Wing said there have been more than 3,000 reported cases of cyber blackmailing in 2020 alone. According to the child protection nonprofit Sahil, there were 24 cases of child sexual abuse involving teachers reported in 2020.
Uneven power dynamics in academic settings create an environment where abuse and coercion are possible.
“If survivors are reporting that they were abused by a teacher, we find that they are very hesitant to approach the administration or to file a complaint because in their minds, they will be very concerned that the administration will take their teacher's side and the student will instead be kicked out,” Ali Aftab, program officer at the educational reform nonprofit Zindagi Trust, told VICE World News.
“The simple fear of that repercussion has been one of the biggest hindrances to students actually reporting cases of abuse. It's so much worse in higher education, where your professors and associate professors hold a much more significant degree of power,” he added.
Filming sexual assault is a psychopathic trait, according to psychologists, and assaulters may do it in order to relive their crimes besides using the videos for blackmail. “The perpetrator’s mindset is to spread terror and to create a unique brand for the crime they are perpetrating. Psychopaths enjoy that,” clinical psychologist Qudsia Tariq told VICE World News.
In schools, assaulters have easy access to vulnerable students, and the lack of child protection programs and proper sex education contribute to unchecked abuse, Aftab said.
Although reporting rates of sexual assaults have relatively increased, a large number of survivors still stay away from law enforcement. In the Dera Ghazi case, none of the survivors in the 20 viral videos approached the police.
“They are afraid to come to us for the sake of respect and honour,” Dera Ghazi Khan city police deputy superintendent Rehan-ul-Rasool told VICE World News.
“Even though a lot of youngsters come forward, there are major challenges females face – even though there are a lot of female officers and councillors. Survivors, especially from traditional backgrounds, fear the reactions in their households,” said the cyber crime official.
It took Sidra five months to inform her parents about the abuse she was going through. However, her parents decided not to pursue a police complaint. Instead, they decided to pay the teacher in exchange for his silence. Although the abuse and the blackmail have ended, Sidra fears that without police involvement, the blackmail could happen again.
“I always have those videos at the back of my mind. What happens when the money my parents paid him runs out? We should have just told the police,” said Sidra.
In light of the growing instances of abuse in schools and colleges, parents are increasingly wary of sending their children – especially daughters – to school.
“I wanted my daughter to stand on her own feet. I wanted her to hold her head up high in this world, to study and to become successful. Now, I have buried those dreams. I will never let her enter a school again after what happened there,” said Sidra’s father.
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