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.
Calls for legislation
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.