Peshawar: Half way through the lecture, a nine year old boy nudged his class fellow in the side and said: “Look at the madam! She is talking dirty.” They both sniggered quietly, hunching down their heads and hiding their smiles with hands.
There are 200 children in the class, the room packed to capacity. They are all here to watch theatre but they are also actors, so to speak, because it an interactive theatre.
The madam in the play is acting as a doctor. She points to a chart affixed to the classroom wall and asks the students: “Do you know which parts of your body are called private?”
The hall resounds as the children say “yes mam” in unison. The chart makes it very clear what parts of the human body are private – they are all highlighted.
The children, boys and girls, are students of grade 8 and above. They are at the Agha Khan Auditorium in University of Peshawar to watch a theatre drama on child abuse. With shy smiles and nervous shifting glances, they watch and listen to actors who tell them about the private parts of their bodies.
Child abuse is rampant in Pakistan. According to Sahil, an organisation that compiles what it calls “cruel numbers” on child abuse cases from national and local newspapers, some 3,002 child sexual abuse cases were reported in 2013. For the year 2014, the figure stands at a “staggering 3508 bringing the number of abused children to 10 every day,” says Sahil’s Cruel Numbers for that year. “This figure shows an increase of 17 percent from the previous year.”
Sahil’s 2014 data for provinces show that 2054 cases of child abuse were reported in Punjab province, followed by 875 cases reported in Sindh, 297 in Balochistan, 152 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 90 in the federal capital of Islamabad, 38 in Azad Jammu Kashmir and 1 each in Gilgit Baltistan and FATA.
“The Urban–Rural divide shows that 67 percent cases were reported from rural areas where as 33 percent of cases were reported from the urban areas,” says Sahil’s report for 2014.
In the hall at Agha Khan Auditorium in University of Peshawar, it is time to tell the children about how to respond when threatened with sex abuse. The children stiffen as the “doctor” in the drama advises them how to react if someone tries to touch their private parts, which could lead to child rape or molestation.
The theatre play is arranged by Aitebaar, a non-profit working to create awareness about social issues. The organization’s theatre project coordinator Atif Afzal says they have received overwhelming response from parents and education institutions for arranging theatre drama on social issues including sex education. “Theater dramas are the best way to communicate with the children and to educate them on something as sensitive as sex abuse.”
Rubab, an eighth grader at the University Public School, is among the children who have gathered to watch the play. She has watched the entire drama with a component on sex education. She says in one scene, a young boy is shown working at a mechanic’s workshop. “His teacher at the workshop, an older man, would seduce him by touching the private parts of his body,” says Rubab. “The scene described how children are sexually abused in the society. Later on, the play concluded by telling the children how they should react to such situations.”
In the last scene, the children were told to scream, call for help and inform their parents. They were told if they couldn’t share it with their parents, they should speak to their elder sister or brother about it.
At the end of the performance, the organizers open the stage for children to repeat, by reenacting, acts that they saw actors perform when faced with sex abuse, or change them with suggestions of their own. “I would let my parents know if anyone tried to touch me,” says Rubab. Asked what she learned from the play, she said, “to scream on the spot if anyone tries to touch me.”
Sex education is taboo in the Pakistani society. In 2014, All Pakistan Private School Federation representing over 152,000 private schools across the country banned sex education curriculum in their institutions when asked to do so by the government. The federation president told media in 2014 that “sex education is against our constitution and religion.”
Dr.Azaz Jamal, a medical officer at the Psychiatry unit of Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar, says lack of sexual education leads to depression and anxiety among children, especially as they approach puberty and experience changes in their body. “Depression is a common problem among children at the cusp of puberty.”
Dr. Jamal has treated many children suffering anxiety due to changes in their bodies. “Children feel they have contracted some kind of disease.”
As for the need for sexual education, Dr. Jamal says adults need it as much as children. He recalled a patient he treated for pre-mature ejaculation. “The patient was severely depressed as he considered it a serious setback to his sex life, brought on by excessive masturbation. He didn’t have any idea that pre-mature ejaculation is a common sexual condition and can be treated easily.”
Dr. Jamal attributes widespread sex abuse of children in the society to lack of sexual education. “Victims of child sex-abuse cannot express it to their elders nor to anyone else in the society due to the stigma and so the cycle continues.”
When asked about the age at which a child should receive sex-education, the psychiatrist proposed children should have sex education after 10 years of age when changes start occurring in their body.
In addition to resistance to sex education from certain sections of society due to religious reasons, others consider it a taboo for cultural reasons, such as the Pashtun population along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. However, Aitebaar’s Atif Afzal rejects the narrative that the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are conservative and would not let their children have sex education.
“Aitebaar has been approached by many private schools to arrange theater dramas for their children on sex education,” says Afzal. “The project is implemented under an MoU with KP government and will be extended to the rest of the country in near future.”
Professor Jamil Ahmad Chitrali, who teaches anthropology at the University of Peshawar, stresses the need for organizing theater dramas to educate children on social issues including sexual abuse. Chitrali says for decades, the Pashtun society has been deprived of awareness and education events due to Afghan Jihad and the war against terrorism in the country – conflicts for which the Khyber Pakhunkhwa province has been a battleground.
“We need to create an environment where basic human rights are guaranteed to every citizen, where they are aware of how to react and seek help in case of rights violations,” says Chitrali.
Arbab Saad*, an eighth grader who has come to watch the theatre performance at Peshawar University, tells News Lens that he is confident that he can deal with sex abuse after watching the play. He says he will never let anyone touch his body. “I wasn’t aware nor had heard about the term ‘sex education’ until now.”