The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Pakistan, the rape and killing of a 7-year-old girl is changing a culture of shame and indifference

Well-wishers gather outside the home of the family of Zainab Amin in Kasur, Pakistan, on Jan. 12. The rapes and killings of a dozen children have terrified parents in central Pakistan and prompted soul-searching over how the country fails to protect its most vulnerable. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
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KASUR, Pakistan — The ­second-grader's homework assignment on Jan. 3 was to describe herself. "I am a girl," wrote Zainab Amin, who had a perky smile and a pageboy haircut. "I am seven years old. I live in Kasur. I love mangoes."

The next morning, while walking to a Koran class at her aunt's house, the little girl vanished. Five days later, her battered corpse was discovered in a garbage dump nearby. The medical examiner's terse report hinted at the horrors she had endured while the community was frantically searching for her.

There was "mud, fecal matter, and blood on the body," it stated. There were strangulation marks on her neck. There was semen and other "signs of sexual assault," including sodomy.

Zainab's gruesome rape and slaying followed several waves of child abductions, murders and sexual abuse that earned this economically struggling city a macabre reputation as Pakistan's capital of child sex abuse. But it also triggered an unprecedented national bout of soul-searching, outrage and public confessions from victims of sexual abuse. Pakistan is a conservative Muslim society; child abuse is common but rarely reported, and sex education is too controversial for public schools. 

Rape victims are often charged with adultery and jailed, and tribal councils — part of a traditional parallel justice system — have sentenced women and girls to be raped as retribution for forbidden dalliances or elopement committed by their male relatives. In most instances, state authorities do not intervene unless the case is especially egregious and attracts news coverage.

But Zainab's case, which coincided with the #MeToo phenomenon in the United States, thrust a long-verboten topic into the public arena. Headlines screamed "Pakistan's Shame!" The #JusticeforZainab hashtag went viral. Celebrities sent out tweets revealing childhood secrets of being molested by older men. Clerics from competing Muslim groups rushed to lead funeral prayers and protests. Provincial government officials, facing calls that they resign, fired Kasur's police chief and offered a reward of 10 million rupees (about $100,000) for information about the culprit.

"There is no shame in having been a victim of abuse," tweeted Frieha Altaf, a public relations star who confided that she had been molested by her family's cook at age 6. She said that the experience "scarred me for life" but that she had remained silent until now because the issue was a social taboo in Pakistan, "shushed away by victims' families." 

Fashion designer Maheem Khan reported on social media that she had been sexually abused as a child by a Muslim cleric "who came to teach me the Koran. I froze in fear day after day." She urged her fellow Pakistanis to "take a look at ourselves as a society" and parents to "listen to your children, teach them, warn them, talk to them openly about what is appropriate and what isn't."

Zainab's death set off three days of violent rioting in Kasur, a gritty industrial city near the border with India where residents were already on edge after a spate of similar crimes — including a video porn ring that reportedly targeted nearly 300 children. Most cases were never solved, and some suspects were freed by the courts. Last week, as anger at authorities boiled over, three protesters were fatally shot.

Rights activists said they fear that the furor will die down and little will change, though, largely because of the entrenched political interests, clan loyalties, legal limits and cultural taboos that work against justice in such cases. Witnesses often refuse to testify, police are discouraged from investigating, and courts routinely free accused abusers. There is almost no sex education in public schools, and it was not until two years ago that sexual abuse of minors was made a criminal offense.

Pakistan struggles to combat child rapes

Already, in the days since Zainab's abduction, a similar case has come to light in northwest Pakistan — this time with an even younger victim, a girl of 4 named Asma. Her body was found in a sugar cane field with signs of strangulation and rape. Her father was away at the time, working as a construction laborer in the Middle East.

"The whole society has reacted strongly in Zainab's case, but only punishment will deter the recurrence of such crimes," said Manizeh Bano, executive director of Sahil, a nonprofit group that fights child abuse. In the pedophile porn case, rights groups claimed that from 2009 to 2015, as many as 280 children were abducted and forced to participate in videotaped sex acts. There were protests and calls for justice, but an investigative panel found no evidence of abuse and said the accusations stemmed from a land dispute. 

Bano, whose group found that most cases of child sexual abuse are never reported, said she was encouraged by the surge of about 100 reported cases since Zainab's abduction. But in Kasur, she said, there are "powerful circles" protecting the abusers, reportedly including politicians and police. "Unless such circles are broken, it will be difficult to prevent such cases in the future," she said.

On Thursday, in a working-class district of Kasur, TV satellite trucks and police vehicles clogged cement alleys leading to the Amins' modest home across from a textile factory. A makeshift press podium had been set up in a vacant lot, and posters had been put up showing Zainab's face surrounded by bloody palm prints.

Her father, a soft-spoken school supply custodian named Muhammad Amin Ansari, received a stream of well-wishers in his dimly lit living room. He and his wife were in Saudi Arabia on a Muslim pilgrimage when their daughter vanished, and they had asked an uncle to look after her.

"I was in Mecca praying for my children, and I came back to this," said Ansari, 50, a slight man with a gray beard. He said that he was frustrated by the lack of police progress in finding Zainab's killer but that he hoped the tragedy would help prevent similar crimes in the future. "We need justice for all such cases," he said.

In a cramped bedroom down the hall, Ansari's wife, Nusrat, 42, spoke in a murmur. She described Zainab, the youngest of her four children, as a studious girl who loved to get up early to study the Koran before school. "I want to look in the eyes of the person who did this, so he can see what I suffered during those five days we were all looking for her," she said.

So far, though, no breakthroughs in the case have been announced, although a special investigative team has been working around the clock. Officials said that DNA samples suggest that at least half of the 11 other girls found raped and killed in the city over the past two years were victims of the same attacker, raising the fearsome specter of a serial predator at large. 

At the local headquarters of the Punjab province police, a map of the city was pinned to the wall, with labels marking Zainab's house and the garbage dump where her body was found. Zahid Marwat, the newly named police chief, said more than 200 officers from several security agencies were investigating the case, including young women acting as decoys.

"Our job is to arrest the culprit, and we will not rest until he is caught," Marwat said. He did not comment on police actions before his arrival but said everything possible is now being done to find Zainab's attacker. "More children could be in danger. Society is in a panic and people feel very insecure. There is no way we would take this lightly," he said.

But community leaders complained that police had failed to take serious action after the girl was reported missing and security camera tapes showed her walking with a man whose face was clearly visible. Volunteers combed the area for five days, finding nothing until the morning of Jan. 9, when her remains were discovered.

On Thursday, cars periodically pulled up at the garbage dump and visitors got out, staring at the sea of trash for a few moments before turning away. A bony dog sniffed among the new piles of refuse, and backhoes chugged back and forth, methodically crushing and covering up what lay below.

In Pakistan, five girls were killed for having fun. Then the story took an even darker twist.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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