GUJRANWALA, Pakistan — In a rural village in Pakistan’s eastern rice belt, two teenage sisters left for school one recent day on a muddy path far too narrow for cars.
Within hours, they were dead, their bodies left facedown along a swampy canal after they were raped and shot multiple times, the medical examiner reported. By the next morning, their deaths were news across Pakistan, the latest in a grisly stream of sexual attacks on minors.
“They were identified by their clothes,” Muhammad Nazir, the victims’ uncle, said in an interview. “All we know for sure: They went from their house to school, and they were murdered.”
For generations, rape was a taboo subject in this conservative Muslim society. As recently as a decade ago, the news about the 14- and 16-year-old sisters might never have traveled beyond this rural area, where rice fields stretch for miles and workers shape bricks from the spongy soil.
But thanks to a freer media and a push by child-welfare advocates to get families to report such crimes, the number of cases under investigation is rising, as is the outrage of parents, the public and advocacy groups.
“People are now reporting things, and people are now seeing children are suffering heinous, horrible crimes,” said Narjis Zaidi, a human rights advocate in Islamabad.
On the same day in late September that the sisters were killed on the outskirts of Gujranwala, the body of a 13-year-old girl was found on a Karachi beach after she was raped and killed on the way to school.
A week earlier, a 5-year-old girl was raped multiple times after being kidnapped. She was then dumped outside a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
And on a single day — Sept. 20 — Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper reported on the alleged rape of a 4-year-old by his school principal in Faisalabad, and the rapes of another boy, also 4, and a 14-year-old girl. The teenager had been gang-raped by four men over two days, the newspaper reported.
Each case has brought new waves of angry mothers besieging police stations demanding public executions. In Karachi, after the rape of the 5-year-old in Lahore, schoolgirls paraded with signs displaying a noose. In Pakistan’s culturally conservative northwest, female lawmakers attempted to block roads in Peshawar to protest the crime, according to media reports.
“This country has gone to the dogs,” said Shazia Shaheen, coordinator for the Mumkin Alliance, a coalition of organizations that advocate for battered women.
Activists and government leaders note that sexual violence is hardly unique to Pakistan, citing widespread abuses across much of the Middle East and South Asia, including the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December that shocked India.
What makes the reports in Pakistan especially notable is that they have emerged at all, reflecting a broader awareness by victims and the news media.
Activists say the media attention can be credited in part to the opening of several dozen privately owned television news stations after the government’s monopoly on electronic media ended in 2002. That has led to more aggressive coverage of topics previously ignored.
“It’s like a disease,” said Rana Mohsin, a freelance television journalist in Punjab province. “Ten or 20 years ago, no one knew they had high blood sugar or blood pressure. But now there are labs, and people know and are more aware, and the same with this.”
Several rape cases have been well publicized in recent years, including that of Mukhtar Mai, who made international headlines after she spoke out about being gang-raped in 2002 on orders from village elders. The convictions of all but one of six men charged in connection with the case were overturned.
In Punjab, Pakistan’s most-populous province, there was extensive coverage in 2010 and 2011 of a serial rapist who attacked eight children in the Sialkot district, leaving some of them dead, said Muhammad Imtiaz Ahmed, program manager for Pakistan’s Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.
“After that, the media, the police, educationally, all started talking about how we need to do a better job of protecting children,” he said.
Pakistan’s government does not release frequently updated statistics for child sexual abuse. But according to Sahil, an Islamabad-based activist group, cases of child sexual abuse covered by the media grew from 668 in 2002 to 2,788 in 2012.
“We still think these statistics are just a fraction of what’s going on,” said Manizeh Bano, the group’s executive director.
Activists and government leaders suggest various theories for the recent attacks.
Some blame the country’s conservative, Islamic-centered school system, which they say has been too slow to reverse cultural norms that treat females as inferior.
Sahil staffers also worry about HIV-positive men who mistakenly believe they can be cured if they have sex with preadolescent girls. In February, according to media reports, a man cited his HIV-positive status as his reason for raping a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old in Islamabad. The girls were later killed.
Still, as in other parts of the world, minors in Pakistan face the greatest risk of sex abuse from relatives or acquaintances. Abida Hussain, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1993, noted that the average family in Pakistan is twice as large as the typical U.S. family.
“There is crowding, less space, less of everything, and there is less sense of control,” she said.
Muhammad Tahir Khalily, chairman of the psychology department at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, said the details of many of the recent assaults are shocking even to experts.
Although he said more study is needed, Khalily said he thinks the country’s struggle with terrorism and the near-daily reports of bombings and assassinations are partly to blame.
“There is a famous saying, ‘Violence causes violence,’ ” Khalily said. “To have this fusion of aggravation and sexual acts, and with young children, this is highly unusual.”
Concern about the attacks extends to the National Assembly, where legislators plan to consider new laws. The legal definition of rape was changed in 2006, but activists say successful prosecution relies too heavily on witness testimony. Activists estimate that less than 10 percent of rapes in Pakistan result in convictions.
Saman Sultana Jafri, a lawmaker from Karachi, said she hopes to champion legislation that includes tougher sentences, a safety campaign aimed at children, resources for mental health treatment and a government-sponsored study of what is causing so many attacks on children.
But she warns that it could take years to pass such legislation as lawmakers weigh concerns from religious leaders.
Underscoring the potential hurdles, the influential council of Islamic leaders that advises lawmakers ruled last month that DNA evidence alone cannot bring a conviction in a rape case.
Nonetheless, activists say the increased media coverage makes it harder for officials to ignore the problem.
In the killing of the 13-year-old girl in Karachi, police arrested a cousin of the victim and the cousin’s husband. In the Lahore case, police have questioned at least 20 potential assailants.
In Gujranwala, where the sisters’ blood still stains the grass, the local police commander said he is under pressure to make an arrest.
“With the media attention and [pressure from] higher authorities,” said Zubar Warriach, the police commander, “we have to do our job.”
Mohammed Rizwan in Lahore and Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.