I was on my way home from the monthly grocery shopping one evening, my six-year-old in the car with me. It was a slightly chilly dusk, not unusual for late January in Lahore. We weren’t at the protest because, quite simply, we found out too late. My daughter was singing a little tune, her head poking out the open window, her curly ponytail streaming behind her head when I opened a Facebook post a friend tagged me in.

And there they were – the children of Kasur, holding up placards no child should ever bear: “I am a survivor”, “I was raped”, “I want justice”. They were flanked by their parents, who will not stand for their stories to be ignored any longer. What happened to them? A wave of sexual abuse that hit the tiny town in Punjab province around 2006 but came to public light in 2012, when a child pornography ring operating in Kasur was busted.

Hundreds of children had been abducted from fields, alleys, on the way to school or on the way back from an errand and forced into horrible acts. “We have it on camera,” the perpetrators told the children. “We’ll tell everyone.” And so, the children kept their shame a secret for far too long. Some people were caught, some ultimately let go and some are on death row – slowly the rage and grief of thousands of Pakistanis ebbed back to normal.

But when eight-year-old Zainab Ansari’s body was found in January on a garbage heap, it opened old wounds with a vengeance. A photograph of her – green eyes, a smile, wearing a pink jacket and a matching little clip in her hair – has been the display photo of many for weeks as social media exploded with the hashtag JusticeforZainab. Zainab’s death touched a nerve that would twinge and ache for other victims, but somehow hadn’t exploded in a burst of pain quite like this before.

Photo credit: AFP

Not just another name

She was a little girl, she was lovely, and she was alone. Before her body was found, she had already been missing for several days, during which she was tortured and raped and ultimately strangled. Her frantic parents were desperately trying to catch a flight home from Saudi Arabia, where they had gone for an umrah, or a small pilgrimage, leaving Zainab and her siblings in the care of relatives. Perhaps nobody could have foreseen how a short walk – from home to mosque, for a Quran lesson – could have changed the lives of the Ansaris forever.

What happened to Zainab is every parent’s nightmare. One sends a child out, just around the corner for an ice lolly or to a neighbour’s to borrow an egg, and they never come home. It’s the inconceivable, the unsayable, the unthinkable. And yet not just one, but 12 little girls like Zainab are gone forever. The debates that have been sparked range from fury from other parents at why Zainab was unsupervised to heartbroken for the loss of a little girl.

Tangentially, there have been conversations about capital punishment too, emerging from a popular call for Zainab’s killer to be hanged. The one silver lining on this bleak cloud has been the huge surge in previously hesitant parents sitting down to talk to their children about good touch and bad touch. Stranger danger might not even be relevant, because most molestations happen at the hands of people a child knows and trusts, and in this case, the man who has been arrested, Imran Ali, was a neighbour who had taken great pains to ingratiate himself with the Ansari family. CCTV footage shows Zainab holding the hand of the man – who, essentially, was kidnapping her – and walking away. That was the last time she was seen alive.

A growing violence

All over the world, violence is on the rise and the brunt of it is borne by the most vulnerable: women and children. On the one hand, one is trying to raise children to be kind and loving, and on the other is the reality of a thorny, harsh world that wishes harm upon them.

Zainab isn’t just a statistic to us, the way the others have become. Zainab has become an emblem, a monument to the wave after wave of violence and bloodshed that is dogging the childhoods of our kids. It’s not just Pakistan or India – where recently an eight-month-old baby was raped by her cousin – but globally, sex crimes are escalating. Unicef’s sexual violence statistics estimated 15 million adolescent girls are survivors, as of last year.

What is happening to the world?

It’s not just about being a parent, as I am. It’s not about watching your two-year-old cheerfully digging holes in the garden and thanking every power in the universe that he is safe, because you know there are so many children who are not. It’s about the fear of people who actively seek to harm children and keep doing it. It’s the WhatsApp forwards about suspicious activity and how to report it. It’s about taking your children to school every day, and if you’re like me, telling them to be kind and have fun and in your heart wishing with all your might that nobody forces them to be otherwise.

Photo credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

A bleak future

What kind of future do we expect in a world that dehumanises children, that reduces them to objects to be used? The worst part of it all, to my mind, is having to tell the children. That it’s true, there are bad guys out there that aren’t fictional, and the good guys don’t win every time. That they need to protect themselves – scream, run away, kick, find a trusted adult. These are the life skills they are learning, alongside how to make the perfect slime or kick a ball in an arc off the ground.

The average Pakistani child, post the APS school massacre in Peshawar in 2014, knows how to barricade a classroom in case of an emergency. My nine-year-old knows which spaces in her school are bulletproof, and as her mother I am equal parts horrified that she has to have that knowledge and relieved, because all that matters is that she be safe. Anyone who has ever told Pakistan to “do more” has never had to experience the heartbreak of watching your tiny, beribboned four-year-old walk into a school festooned with barbed wire, under the watchful eye of a sniper.

Zainab’s killer confessed to murdering her and is suspected of raping and killing seven other girls. He is 24 years old. What kind of young man is he, one wonders, what happened to him to make him this way? Is it the overwhelming entitlement of being a man in a patriarchy, that he could just take what he wanted? Was it the fact that Zainab was just a little girl, and children – especially girl children in South Asia – are disposable? Or did someone cause grievous harm to him when he was a child, and now Imran Ali is exacting a terrible revenge?

Even now many people are sceptical of Ali’s arrest, pointing out discrepancies between an official photo of him and the bearded man in the recording. That is irrelevant, because beards are easily shaved and the police has got DNA evidence. The same public is in parts relieved and in parts cynical about whether this is indeed the kingpin behind what appears to be a serial killing.

In the aftermath

But one thing is for certain: for the parents of Pakistan, child abuse is a taboo that has been demolished, hopefully forever. No parent is going to let the monster remain unnamed now – Zainab has made sure of that. NGOs and other organisations that work for sexual safety and health awareness have put out useful infographics about how to talk to your children about their bodies and safety.

Parent groups have been trading tips and ideas for weeks. Principals have addressed entire school assemblies about it and class teachers have been talking to their students regularly. We’re talking to our household staff about it, for their children, many of whom live in villages with the rest of their family and may not have access to health workers or activists. Pakistan may still be sexually conservative, but now it’s a matter of the children, and the time to be squeamish is long past.

The thought of another Zainab Ansari is intolerable.