Sexual abuse is a pervasive and long-standing problem at madrasas in Pakistan, an AP investigation has found. But in a culture where clerics are powerful and sexual abuse is a taboo subject, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public.
It is even more seldom prosecuted. Police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics, victims’ families say. And cases rarely make it past the courts, because Pakistan’s legal system allows the victim’s family to “forgive” the offender and accept what is often referred to as “blood money”.
The AP found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clerics reported in the past decade, and officials suspect there are many more within a far-reaching system that teaches at least two million children in Pakistan. The investigation was based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, relatives, former and current Ministers, aid groups and religious officials.
The fear of clerics and the militant religious organisations that sometimes support them came through clearly. One senior official in a Ministry tasked with registering these cases says many madrasas are “infested” with sexual abuse. “There are thousands of incidences of sexual abuse in the madrassas,” he says. “This thing is very common, that this is happening.”
Pakistan’s clerics close ranks when the madrasa system is too closely scrutinised, he says. Among the weapons they use to frighten their critics is a controversial blasphemy law that carries a death penalty in the case of a conviction.
A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past 10 years of sexual abuse by maulvi s or clerics and other religious officials came to 359. That represents “barely the tip of the iceberg,” says Munizae Bano, executive director of Sahil, the organisation that scours the newspapers and works against sexual abuse of minors.
In 2004, a Pakistani official disclosed more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys in madrasas. He has since refused to talk, and there have been no significant arrests or prosecutions.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrasas or Islamic schools in Pakistan. In addition, there are 2,000-3,000 unregistered ones, says Mufti Mohammed Naeem, the head of the sprawling Jamia Binoria madrassa in the city of Karachi. Many of them operated without scrutiny, ignored by the authorities.