Four and a half-year-old Iman Fatima always wanted to help her mother in the kitchen. “She was always with me, cupping flour in her hands [saying], ‘Look mom, I’m helping,” Tahira Tawzeen says at her home in Kasur, Pakistan.
In February 2017, Tahira’s worst fears came true when her daughter was abducted outside the family house. Iman’s body was found two days later at a plot near her school; she had been raped and murdered.
“My world fell apart the day she went missing,” Tahira says. “I am so angry with the police. Why didn’t they do more for my Iman?”
Kasur is a bustling city located an hour outside of Lahore. It is in one of Pakistan’s wealthiest provinces, but it has been left reeling by a harrowing string of child sexual abuse cases and murders. Between 2016 and 2018, 12 young girls were raped and killed in Kasur, sparking fears of a serial killer and pedophile.
In February 2018, a man named Mohammed Imran Ali was convicted of raping and killing one of the victims, Zainab Ansari. Ali was sentenced to death by a special anti-terrorism court, and will stand trial for least seven more of the murders, including Iman’s.
Watch: The Young Girls Whose Feet Never Touch Ground
The families of some victims say that police bungled the investigation. In Iman’s case, her family alleges that the police failed to collect key procedural and DNA evidence. (Kasur Police deny this.) “When we lost Iman Fatima, it highlighted we would never get justice,” her father, Mohammed, says angrily.
I spoke with Hassan Khan Niazia, a Lahore-based human rights lawyer who has worked with victims of child abuse in Kasur. “The police did not even provide a medical report [to the family],” he says. “It was a complete disaster.”
Iman’s family received over £6,000 in compensation from the local government, but have not been provided with any psychological support in the aftermath of her death. (Under the law, victims of crime can seek financial compensation from the state.)
From their home in a quiet residential street in Road Kot, Nusrat Amin recalls the night her daughter Zainab went missing on her way to Quran recital. Her body was found in a landfill site close to her home; a subsequent autopsy showed that she had been strangled and raped.
“I will always remain broken,” Amin whispers, her voice cracking with emotion.
From across the room, her daughter Laiba interrupts: “Police did not help our family—if it wasn't for my uncle we would know nothing.”
The Amin family says that they initially had to investigate their daughter’s disappearance themselves. Zainab’s uncle, Mohammad Adnan, led the search. “Police did not engage in verifying the information collated by myself and family members, which in my opinion could have assisted the investigation greatly,” he says.
“The family had to investigate my daughter's horror for six days and six nights,” Nusrat says. “Where is the justice?”
Kasur Police denies that the force mismanaged the investigation of the murders, or that they behaved insensitively in dealing with the victims’ families. “We have women police officers,” public relations officer Sajed Hussain said when asked if there were trained officers to handle cases of child abuse and murder, “but there are internal challenges.”
Police maintain that the city was well-protected, including the deployment of 300 plainclothes officers on the streets between 13 and 15 January to maintain security.
These days, the streets of Kasur are unusually subdued. At 3 PM, when you would normally see children playing in public after school, it is so quiet that you can even hear the whir of the cotton mills nearby.
In the last three years, 720 incidents of child sexual abuse have been reported in Kasur alone. There is a palpable climate of fear in Kasur, with many questioning if their sons and daughters are safe out on the streets. In January, these fears bubbled to the surface in Kasur with the outbreak of protests and riots over Zainab’s murder, when hundreds of protesters closed roads and markets. Two people were killed when police opened fire on the demonstrators.
There are lingering fears that the authorities are ill-equipped to deal with such cases—especially when victims or families may not even feel comfortable reporting cases of child sexual abuse to the police themselves. Iftikhar Malik from Children Advocacy Network (CAN) pointed to the lack of resources available to those in Pakistan. “What makes the issue far more complicated [is that] police [are] the primary contact for victims,” he explains.
There is minimal comprehensive government data on the overall level of child abuse in the country, and little government support available for survivors or resources for those who wish to raise awareness of the issue. In conservative Pakistan, the Child Protection Bureau is also unable to speak frankly about issues relating to sex. “There are no provincial programs, or training programs to educate teachers on more than ‘only good touch or bad touch’ which is far too simplistic,” explains Malik. (The ‘good touch bad touch’ resource was originally created by Islamabad-based NGO Rozan to help children differentiate between appropriate or harmful physical contact.)
At Kasur Police Station, District Superintendent Chaudry Saeed Ahmad defends the police handling of the child abuse cases. “In Pakistan’s history, this is the first time that it has been seen in society to this level,” he says of the abuse, adding that the public failed to actively assist the police in their investigation: “The complaints by the society that police were not sensitive enough are unfair because coordination from society was lacking.”
This will come as a scant comfort to those already grieving the loss of their loved ones and are coping with the psychological fallout caused by devastating sexual abuse. At Zainab’s house, I ask Laiba how she has felt since her sister’s death. “There are days [where] it's hard,” she says. “I am afraid to even to go to the bathroom alone.”