Numbering more than 30,000 madrassas, they often serve free education, food and sometimes shelter to around 4 million poor children across Pakistan, Major General Asif Ghafoor had told reporters in 2019. 27,000 of these are registered with the government – 5,000 of which are now registered under madrassa reforms since 2019 – while the rest operate illegally.
Given the current state of government-run primary and secondary educational institutes, madrassa render the most promising source of education for low income families, besides being – for many – the only supposedly indispensable sacred and safe space to receive religious education. In its essence, a madrassah is a time tested institution that has served societies by producing some of the greatest minds and leaders, not long ago.
Former President General Pervez Musharaf, in 2002, even called madrassas “Pakistan’s biggest network of NGOs.” These religious seminaries in Pakistan are privately funded by individuals, political parties, and foreign states like Saudi Arabia and often remain outside the control of the government.
In an attempt to ameliorate madrassas to the modern education system and regulate its operations, many madrassa reforms are now promulgated to implement Single National Curriculum (SNC) on registered religious seminaries. However, no regulatory body or system of accountability is established to prevent cases of child sexual abuse by clerics and people holding religious titles.
A report titled “Cruel Number 2020” by Sahil (an NGO working for child rights), revealed a 17% increase in child sexual abuse in 2020. It showed that as many as eight children are abused daily in Pakistan. The majority of cases reported included victims falling in the age bracket of 6-15. However, children as young as 0-5 years were also reportedly being sexually abused. Similar to the 2019 statistics reported in “Cruel Numbers 2019” by Sahil, most of the perpetrators were acquaintances and from the category of service providers including clerics, teachers, doctors and police.
Child molestation and physical abuse by religious and spiritual leaders in religious institutes is a pervasive, longstanding and neglected global issue. The patterns of child sexual abuse by clerics with justifications of abuse, suppression of disclosure, stating child sexual abuse a ‘private matter’ and a taboo subject, and religiously-oriented grooming are similar to those observed by Boston Globe investigation of Priests in US and – recently by a French report – in France.
According to a 2016 study, ‘Religion in child sexual abuse forensic interviews,’ the process of abuse often begins by targeting the poor and vulnerable children. They gain trust of the child by giving attention and giving them chocolates or other incentives. This is followed by grooming the child through actions that clerics justify by imposing their authority and/or due to peer pressure. Then comes a time when the child encounters physical or sexual abuse.
The case of ‘Mufti’ Aziz ur Rehman is one of many incidents that are regularly reported in newspapers except that this incident was video-taped and leaked, causing upheaval on digital platforms that forced several clerics to make public statements condemning the practice.
However, probing cases of child sexual abuse within the madrassa system in Pakistan is a thorny issue due to the clergey’s strong ties with the police and support from revered political figures and individuals. In a 2017 Independent UK article on Islamic schools in Pakistan, Manizeh Bano – executive director of Sahil – shared that 359 cases of child molestation by clerics and officials caught media attention over the past 10 years, which is “barely the tip of the iceberg.” These perpetrators often have greater fan-following, albeit enjoy impunity due to flaws in the criminal justice system.
The Gap Analysis conducted by Legal Aid Society (LAS) in 2020 showed that on average, it takes 1.3 months to report rape and sodomy cases. Although only few cases of child sexual abuse by clerics ever get reported due to intimidation caused by religious institutes, research shows that delay in reporting is used as tactics by defense counsel to try and weaken the prosecution’s case.
There is a dire need to take strict measures to prevent cases of child sexual and physical abuse in religious institutes. First and foremost, all religious leaders must realise and acknowledge the pervasiveness of the issue. They must prioritse creating and maintaining madrassa as a safe space for children. For this purpose, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-Madaris, Interior Ministry and Ministry of Human Rights should join hands and establish an independent committee aimed at making the madrassa system organised and efficient. Recruiting religious teachers should remain a transparent and rigorously scrutinized process. This could be done via creating a local governance system within the madrassa network, which should remain accountable to the special committee.
The committee should act as a mediating force between the law-enforcement agencies, the judiciary and the stakeholders within the madrassa system – ensuring that clerics accused of child sexual abuse must be blacklisted and barred from teaching in any madrassa, when proven guilty. They must ensure that once reported, the family of the survivors face no backlash and/or discrimination or intimidation from any religious leaders or police or judiciary. The committee should also be held responsible for the implementation of protective laws for survivors and their families.