Child sex abuse in Pakistan's religious schools is endemic

    Pakpattan (Pakistan), May 11 (AP) Muhimman proudly writes his name slowly, carefully, one letter at a time, grinning broadly as he finishes. He's just 11 years old and was a good student who had dreams of being a doctor.
    School frightens him now. Earlier this year, a cleric at the religious school he faithfully attended in the southern Punjab town of Pakpattan took him into a washroom and tried to rape him.
    Muhimman's aunt, Shazia, who wanted only her first name used, said she believes the abuse of young children is endemic in Pakistan's religious schools.
    She said she has known the cleric, Moeed Shah, since she was a little girl and describes him as an habitual abuser who used to ask little girls to pull up their shirts.
    “He has done wrong with boys and also with two or three girls,” Shazia said, recalling one girl the cleric brutalised so badly he broke her back.
    An investigation by The Associated Press found dozens of police reports, known here as First Information Reports, alleging sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic clerics teaching in madrassas or religious schools throughout Pakistan, where many of the country's poorest study.
    The AP also documented cases of abuse through interviews with law enforcement officials, abuse victims and their parents.
    The alleged victims who spoke for this story did so with the understanding only their first names would be used.
    There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many more religious schools that are unregistered.
    They are typically started by a local cleric in a poor neighbourhood, attracting students with a promise of a meal and free lodging.
    There is no central body of clerics that governs madrassas.
    Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy topped by the Vatican.
    The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to modernize the curriculum and make the madrassas more accountable, but there is little oversight.
    Police say the problem of sexual abuse of children by clerics is pervasive and the scores of police reports they have received are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet despite the dozens of reports, none have resulted in the conviction of a cleric.
    Religious clerics are a powerful group in Pakistan and they close ranks when allegations of abuse are brought against one of them.
    They have been able to hide the widespread abuse by accusing victims of blasphemy or defamation of Islam.
    Families in Pakistan are often coerced into “forgiving” clerics, said Deputy Police Superintendent Sadiq Baloch, speaking in his office in the country's northwest, toward the border with Afghanistan.
    Overcome by shame and fear that the stigma of being sexually abused will follow a child into adulthood, families choose instead to drop the charges, he said.
    Most often, when a family forgives the cleric the investigation ends because the charges are dropped.
    “It is the hypocrisy of some of these mullahs, who wear the long beard and take on the cloak of piety only to do these horrible acts behind closed doors, while openly they criticize those who are clean shaven, who are liberal and open minded,” Baloch said.
    “In our society so many of these men, who say they are religious, are involved in these immoral activities.”
    Police officials say they have no idea how many children are abused by religious clerics in Pakistan.
    The officials said clerics often target young boys who have not yet reached puberty in part because of the restrictive nature of Pakistan's still mostly conservative society, where male interaction with girls and women is unacceptable.
    The clerics for the most part had access to and trust with boys, who are less likely to report a sexual assault.
    Eight-year-old Yaous from Pakistan's remote northern Kohistan region is one of those boys.
    Yaous' father was a poor labourer who had no education and spoke only the local language of his area, yet he wanted to educate his son.
    He had heard of a religious school in Mansehra, several hundred kilometers (miles) south of his village, where other boys from the area had gone.
    Too poor to even own a phone, his father went for months without speaking to his son.
    Yaous is small for his eight years. His features are slight. In an interview with the AP, with his uncle interpreting, Yaous' tiny body shivered as he told of his ordeal.
    It was near the end of December last year — a holiday at the madrassa.
    Most of the students had left. Only Yaous and a handful of students had stayed behind.
    His village was hours away, and the cost of transportation home was too much for his parents.
    The other students had gone to wash their clothes and Yaous said he was alone inside the mosque with Qari Shamsuddin, the cleric. The sexual assault was unexpected and brutal.
    The boy said Shamsuddin grabbed his hand, dragged him into a room and locked the door.
    “It was so cold. I didn't understand why he was taking my warm clothes off,” Yaous said, his voice was barely a whisper.
    As Yaous remembered what happened, he buried his head deeper into his jacket. The cleric grabbed a stick, he said.
    It was small, maybe about 12 inches. The first few sharp slaps stung.
    “The pain made me scream and cry, but he wouldn't stop,” Yaous said. The boy was held prisoner for two days, raped repeatedly until he was so sick the cleric feared he would die and took him to the hospital.
    At the hospital, Dr. Faisal Manan Salarzai said Yaous screamed each time he tried to approach him. Yaous was so small and frail looking, Salarzai called him the “baby.” (A) RUP

(This story has not been edited by THE WEEK and is auto-generated from PTI)