Culture and abuse in Peshawar

The abuse and sexual exploitation of street children in the region of Peshawar is common practice today. This abstract will explore some of the cultural aspects that influence the continued perpetration of these otherwise illegal activities.

Whenever a common practice takes place, regardless if it is good or bad, there is always an external mindset that permits the practice to take place. Culture, religion and moral standards all play a prominent role- resulting in suffering of, usually, the lowest people. In Pakistan, the lowest of the low in the eyes of culture and society are the street children. To understand the abuse of street children, it is incredibly important to realize and their neglect and mistreatment is not only culturally to take place but also how people shrug it off casually.

Focusing on Peshawar, it is important to clarify that it not Peshawar or this culture. Several elements collectively contribute to the continued sexual exploitation of street children, and these are discussed below.

Firstly; the Afghani influence. During the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan, 1.5 million officially registered Afghan refugees were reported to be living in Pakistan in addition to approximately 1 million more unregistered refugees. Peshawar being the main center of the refugees was influenced heavily by the Afghani culture. In Afghanistan, ‘bacha baazi’- a practice where small boys are dressed up as girls, perform a dance and then eventually sleep with the highest male bidder for entertainment- is another openly secret norm. However, even though bacha baazi is not the issue at hand, it shows us why street children are sold for sex so easily- such illicit practices have become so commonplace that the public no longer has a shocking or emotional reaction to it, intensifying the extent to which such behaviour has become a cultural norm. Furthermore, honour, plays a huge role in said culture; bringing shame upon the family can, in extreme cases, even mean certain death. To put things into perspective, consider a situation where people who have sex without marriage are exposed – this can provoke a family member of either party to kill the ‘sinner’ off to save ‘face’, which is considered the honourable thing to do. Many of the abusers of street children are men with high status; police men, guards, wealthy business men etc. thus to save themselves from being exposed they will shut people up, by either bribing or killing. Besides posing a whole new set of problems by itself, what this means is that even if the average layperson is aware of any illicit practices and would like to speak up, they won’t be able to due to the involvement of these powerful people. This compromises the motivation of the common public to do anything and eventually, they just shrug it off.

Apart from people being ‘shut up’, it is hard to figure out who is involved and who is not. Since young boys are often the main target, most of the relations are homosexual- something anyone in that culture would do anything to hide. Therefore, making it incredibly hard to identify the abusers apart from the men obvious on the streets in the public eye. Ironically, religious leaders are one of the biggest culprits. The ‘Molvi’ – the one who leads the prayer in the mosques and is normally looked up to as a source of religious guidance – are often the perpetrators of this practice. Recently a man came out and spoke about the rape that he had experienced in a religious setting as a child, saying: “Thus, when the leaders of the country are involved, people who will kill to keep their secret just that are in involved and desperate pedophiles exist; street children become the easiest target. They have no means to protect themselves and even if they are permitted to survive, who would they tell? More importantly, who would believe them? With a public that finds it too much of a hassle to act and the culture of such a practice, street children in Peshawar are the easiest target and the most convenient because the mindset of the people allow this practice.

However, again, it is not the only aspect of the culture and its norms that permits this or aid this practice. Gender segregation plays an incredibly significant role. In Peshawar, compared to the other big cities such as Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, the genders are segregated above and beyond the requirements of Islam- which is the religion of the region. In Islam, the genders are required to observe a certain form of respect for one another, however, in Peshawar, the majority of people you will see on the streets are men. Public coffee shops, markets and public transports is dominated heavily by men. Even within the houses, men and women are at large kept at separate- until the age of marriage- then even after marriage, sex remains a hushed topic even between the husband and wife. There is also very little sex education- both in schools or in the homes- most of what the youth knows comes from either the internet in the form of porn or what they know and experience in the streets. In Islam, sex before marriage is a sin and not permitted therefore one has to get married to have sex. However, the to getting married and having sex is difficult. Culturally, marriage is delayed for the men at least until the age of 25-30, one is required to have a job, a house, money etc. Too many expectations are put on an individual’s shoulders, thus the easiest way out is to engage in underground sex. However, as it ties in with the previous point, people would not like to be found out as it could damage their ‘reputation’ and ruin their ‘honour’ and therefore compromise their actual chances of getting married. Thus, the most ‘suitable’ target are the street children. They fall under the weaker spectrum of society and cannot complain, cannot sue, cannot go to court to file for rape. They are helpless and become the target of every rapist or pedophile, or even, hormonal teenagers.

Male street children are often the ‘preferred’ target of men due to their physical advantages. Boys will not get pregnant, they are mobile- meaning they can take them with them anywhere without making people suspicious- and they will never have to take responsibility of them financially as they could be possibly for girls. At this point, it is not even just a perverted liking for little boys that drive the need to molest them. It is because sex is such a ‘secret’ in the culture that it leads to an obsession of it. Under the surface, people are obsessed with sex but never have any legitimate outlets and thus engage in this activity very heavily. Sex is a normal human craving but when it is shunned as it is, it leads to extremes. Whether people are from the poor side or the wealthy, they need a release and once again street children are the easiest temporary outlet.

Apart from this; poverty, plays a large role. In 2016 the poverty rate of Peshawar was at a high at 31%. That means that over a quarter of the population was struggling to even put food on the table- making things such as marriage, for one, far off, tempting people satisfy themselves using the weaker man. However, it also means that they live in very small houses, often even one room houses where the parents have no other option but to have intercourse in front of their too many children, therefore some of them believe that it is how love is shown so when men do approach them they are easily susceptible to their persuasion. Thus by the time they realize they have been abused- they also do not have the means to do anything about it due to the points mentioned above. With The extreme culture has created a vicious cycle that does not have an end for either the abuser or victim.

These are a few of the pressing cultural reasons for and the sexual exploitation of street children takes place. Corrupt leaders, sexual frustration, gender segregation, honour, fear and poverty all intervene with one another and create an impossible web that street children, on their own cannot escape. Peshawar again is very close to the Afghani border, hence, always pressed with terrorist attacks or threats and the police prioritizes those issues over the protection of street children- thus once again, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

However, this does not mean that all Afghani cultural influence was bad, this does not mean that there are no good people in Peshawar, this does not mean that this only happens in Peshawar, this does not mean that there is no one trying to help the children in Peshawar, it is also important to draw the line between culture and religion because the culture is going against the majority of the teachings of Islam and this also does not mean that it is a completely hopeless cycle- it can be broken