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From child sexual abuse survivor to child protection activist: Why Nadia Jamil’s is not a story of courage, but duty

Courtesy: Dawn News/Image
By Asfa Sultan

“We are not desensitised to the issue of child abuse, we are complicit,” she says.

Children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman once said, “If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.” And while our crumbling economy, withering state of democracy and twisted sense of moral justice contribute to our downfall as a country, our increasingly unjust and inhumane treatment of children is testament to our failure as a society.

There is no harm in admitting our reality — we don’t care. We don’t want to hear about another Duaa, Fatima, Rizwana or Zainab. We know their stories. We read about them in the news. Our lives remain unaffected and largely uninterrupted, as similar occurrences of child sexual abuse become hashtags on social media that are replaced with new trends almost on a daily basis. We don’t have the patience nor the appetite for discourse around the lack of child reforms in Pakistan. And that is exactly why there will always be a nine-year-old who will pay the price for our indifference.

But even in the darkest of times, there are people like Nadia Jamil, who will raise their voice for the children we could not protect and do whatever it takes to “facilitate” — not save — them. So as women’s history month kicks off, we trace Jamil’s journey from being a survivor of child sexual abuse to becoming an actor and children’s rights activist.

“I had a beautiful childhood with lots of love,” Jamil shared in conversation with Images. “I was exposed to so much culture; my mother would take me to Faiz Ahmed Faiz mushairas, Habib Jalib mushairas. I grew up listening to Farida Khanum jee, Abida Parveen jee, Sabri Brothers, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pathane Khan sahab.”

Having developed a taste and flair for art and activism at an early age, a 10-year-old Jamil sang at a factory on labour day. Accompanied by her mother, she also marched for the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, as well as against the Hudood Ordinance. Asma Jahangir was among her earliest influences. But despite being surrounded by those who cared for her and her early exposure to socio-political nuances, Jamil was sexually abused at the age four — a grim reality for most children in Pakistan.

“The abuse caused various mental states to develop within me, like anxiety, insecurities, things I would, at the time, brush under the carpet,” she recalled. “I don’t think it was brave of me to come out with my story, though. I don’t think it’s brave of me at all to talk about children being molested. I think it’s practical,” she explained.

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“That’s because we live in a society where children are constantly exposed to abuse; where acts like bacha bazi (child prostitution) are a norm, where children grow up thinking rape is a norm, where we expose them to beggary. So I don’t think it’s brave to talk about the fact that one is sexually abused. I think it’s common sense. And I think everybody should be worried about children out there. The people who are not worried, I worry for their humanity.”

Last year, data from NGO Sahil revealed that in the first half of 2023, a staggering 2,227 cases of child abuse were reported in Pakistan, translating to an average of 12 children abused daily — marking a rise from 10 children per day in 2021. Of these, 164 were sexually abused, 984 were abducted, 201 went missing, and 14 married. Dist­u­rbingly, there were 53 cases of pornography and one case of incest. Of the total, 457 victims were girls and 593 boys aged six to 15.

The report also revealed that 47 per cent of these ca­ses were reported from urban areas. Unfortunately, accurate data on children engaged in labour, in­cl­uding domestic labour, remains unavailable.

Lest we forget, several cases of child sexual abuse, such as yours or mine, go largely unreported due to the stigma attached, especially if the perpetrators are close to home. Because if there’s one thing that growing up in Pakistan has taught me, it is that while you’ll always be scrutinised for being a woman, that scrutiny will be triple-fold if you speak up about your experiences of abuse that inadvertently implicate a man — any man — and you will be blamed for inciting, exciting, enabling or encouraging his ‘sexual urges’.

And let’s be clear, no amount of privilege can protect you from this scrutiny, and sometimes, your privilege is the reason you can never be the ‘perfect victim’. Even if you are the ‘perfect victim’, such as seven-year-old Zainab, your perpetrators will most likely roam the streets, scot-free.

Jamil’s activism, therefore, extends beyond rhetoric. From her critique of the language used in media when tackling sexual abuse to taking on scripts that highlight child abuse to encouraging her followers to raise their voices against such cases, and organising child abuse awareness walks, Jamil is ensuring her journey is not defined by her trauma. Instead, it’s defined by her remarkable resilience and commitment to ensuring that there are no more victims.

But she insists her journey is not about her courage. “We are a 76-year-old country with zero years of child protection policy, so it’s not an act of courage to talk about these things, it’s an act of common sense,” she insisted. “Nobody cares about children because children don’t vote. They don’t vote, they don’t count.”

Jamil said that while she feels strongly about human rights issues around the world, she is bothered by the lack of interest shown towards the mistreatment of children at home. “How come nobody marches for them?” she asked. “Yes, I feel for other causes. Yes, I feel for other countries. I speak out about their suffering. But when we have a child protection march, only four people show up. Fatima Feriro died at the age of nine. Rizwana is still hospitalised. We are not desensitised to the issue of child abuse, we are complicit.”

The Damsa actor explained what you and I can do to protect the children around us. “What can we do? One child at a time. They should be taught about good touch and bad touch at the age of four. You have to guide them a little bit.

“And why is this burden of shame placed on the victim or survivor? Can we not use more empathetic, healing and respectful language? Moreover, there needs to be a duty to report child abuse. I’ve had clients bringing in children molested by their fathers, brothers, relatives; children who are constantly exposed to their abusers. And I have to say, I cannot take you on as a client, I will report you and your family to the Child Protection Bureau. I cannot help you if you are choosing to expose your child to abuse.”

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