How Pakistani attitudes toward girls contributed to the abuse in Rotherham

Last month a damning report came out that showed 1,400 vulnerable children in Rotherham, UK, had been systematically sexually abused by gangs of men, mostly of Pakistani origin, between 1997 and 2013. It’s easy to pass this off as a crime that doesn’t concern us because it took place on British soil. Yet it gives us a vital opportunity to examine our attitudes towards child abuse in our own country, so that we can better work to protect children here and anywhere else where Pakistanis live in the world.

After similar scandals in Oxford and Rochdale, as well as the Jimmy Saville case, the Rotherham scandal has stirred up huge controversy in the UK. Not only had abuse of the worst kind taken place, but the police and the Rotherham Council ignored the victims’ pleas for help, thus victimizing them further.

Self-styled community leaders who claim to represent all the Pakistani Muslims living in Rotherham encouraged police and council high-ups to ignore the abuse, in order to preserve the superficial “honor” of the community. The officials went along with this to preserve their jobs. The result: children doubly failed by the system, by their elders and by their authority figures, and left to the mercy of men who drove up in taxis, plied these children, some as young as 11, and mostly white, with drugs, and assaulted them. They threatened to burn them alive if they told anyone what happened to them.

The British establishment is asking why the system failed so many of these vulnerable children. The scandal has also stirred up a deeper, uglier question with racist overtones: are criminally inclined Pakistanis living in Britain taking advantage of the vulnerability of white girls, who have more freedom and are more accessible to them than Pakistani Muslim girls in the same community? Is there something specific to Pakistani psychology that inures us to the immorality of these actions?

The answer is that the abuse in Rotherham wasn’t a clear-cut case of Asian-on-white violence. As political commentator Sunny Hundal pointed out, vulnerable Pakistani girls were also victims of grooming gangs, but ignored by the media, which focused on white victims. Pakistanis in Rotherham spoke out against the abuse and testified in court against the abusers. Furthermore, the authorities in the police and Rotherham Council were white, so both Pakistanis and whites played the roles of victims and abusers and colluders through silence.

But sexist attitudes do play a large role in this shameful episode and others like it. We carry prejudices against white women and their “availability” with us when we immigrate, and they become even more amplified when we feel threatened by the pervading culture of the place we have settled in, and we want to draw in and protect ourselves from change and assimilation. If white women are “easy,” then vulnerable white girls, who are in care homes or runaways, are the “easiest” of all.

Beyond the paradigm of race, Pakistan has deeply ingrained attitudes that see all girls and women as inferior to boys and men, which is why ill treatment of women and girls happens in the first place. The World Economic Forum recently named Pakistan the second worst country in the world for equal opportunities for women. If we consistently fail to value girls and women, not just in theory but also in practice, we will ensure that girls continue to face abuse in our communities at home and abroad.

Strangely, this poor attitude towards women also contributes to the phenomenon of child sexual abuse of boys in Pakistan as evinced by the recent documentary Pakistan’s Hid­den Shame. Film­makers Mohammed Naqvi and Jamie Doran examine the problem of sexual abuse of boys on the streets of Peshawar, and paint a terrible portrait of vulnerable boys forced to work on the streets because of poverty, or runaways from unstable homes, who fall prey to paedophiles.

Because of the mistaken belief that girls are more vulnerable, and the best way to protect them is to restrict their movements, families keep girls in the house (where they are still subject to abuse), while allowing boys to roam free everywhere. This is how boys take the place of girls as victims of sexual abuse every day on the streets of every city in Pakistan.

Pakistanis uncomfortable with the fact of child abuse like to say “it happens more in the West.” But this attitude will do exactly the opposite of protecting vulnerable boys and girls from abusers. Our shame at the phenomenon of child abuse is misdirected; the real shame comes when we do nothing to stop it. Pakistan ratified the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, yet has no laws in place to protect those rights. The Protection of Children Bill has yet to be tabled in parliament. It’s time we stopped failing our children, so that we might stop failing ourselves.

This post was originally published at Dawn. Follow Bina on Twitter @BinaShah. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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