By COREY CHARLTON FOR MAILONLINE
The victims of a Pakistan child sex abuse ring have spoken out about their suffering at the hands of depraved attackers who recorded videos of the acts and used them to blackmail their family.
The police, who had failed to act despite pleas from some parents, eventually arrested 37 men after clashes between relatives and authorities brought the issue into the media spotlight last summer.
Irfan, a 16-year-old village boy, was one of 20 children sexually abused by the gang in a scandal that has rocked Pakistan and opened up debate about an unacknowledged national shame.
|Irfan (pictured) was one of 20 children abused by the gang of paedophiles |
operating in Pakistan's Punjab region
|The teenager was embarrassed that his classmates and teachers know |
about his ordeal so he dropped out of school
|Human rights activists wave placards as they protest about the child sex |
scandal in August last year
He said: 'I don't regret speaking out, but since then, people have looked at me with strange eyes,' laments the teenager.'
Like the other abused teens, he feels stigmatised and without any kind of support after five years of abuse.
'I feel terrible when my friends stare at me. I know what they are thinking,' he told Afp. 'My classmates and teachers look down on me, so I stopped going to school.'
Six months after one of the country's biggest paedophilia scandals broke, police now confirm 17 of the accused remain in prison awaiting trial, while three more are out on bail.
But the young survivors who defied taboos to seek justice say they have little hope for rebuilding their lives.
In recent years, more and more families in this socially conservative Muslim country of 200 million have dared to speak out against sexual abuse of their children.
But the fight against predators remains in its infancy. Powerful taboos, gaps in legislation and a lack of awareness continue to fuel a phenomenon that remains hidden, yet deeply embedded within society.
Sonia, 18, said it was unreported childhood abuse, and the subsequent loss of her honour, that drove her toward prostitution.
Forced to abandon her studies to work following the death of her father at the age of 16, she found herself at the mercy of an employer who she says raped her.
Because of the shame it would bring, 'if I would tell my family, they would not go to the police station,' she explained.
It was difficult for her to make her complaint herself because 'there [are] no lady police' at the station, she said, and she quit her job fearing more attacks.
Having lost her sense of worth, she turned to an intermediary at a beauty salon who guided her toward prostitution, which she now uses to support her family.
Wearing light make-up and modern but modest clothing, she has all the airs of a carefree high-schooler - apart from the fact she walks the streets alone at night.
|Two men stand behind bars after a police swoop in the village of |
Hussain Khanwala in August last year
|While 37 men were rounded up in a police investigation last year (pictured), |
only 20 are to face trial
Muhammad, a labourer whose 17-year-old son was among those abused, said '[they] should be sent to Islamabad or abroad because they can not study here, you must remove them from the atmosphere.'
Though the scandal finally made it to the national news media in July, the local police were found to have turned a blind eye to the crimes for several months 'which amounts not only to criminal negligence, rather it was connivance,' according to a report by the National Commission for Human Rights.
Several of the accused belong to locally influential families.
It took a series of clashes between the survivors' families and police, in which dozens were injured, for politicians to act and demand arrests.
The families and survivors were then served up to the media, with some local leaders placing the number of abused children at 280 - though that figure is believed to have been inflated as a result of attempts to leverage the tragedy for business and political gain.
Authorities established that 20 youths were raped and sodomised, the only two sex crimes recognised under Pakistani law.
The country's penal code does not prohibit sexual abuse that does not involve penetration, nor child pornography.
|Hussain Khan Wala village (pictured) in Punjab province was the scene |
of one of the child abuse scandals
|The child abuse ring operating in the village (pictured) is believed to be |
the worst ever uncovered in Pakistan
|Residents of the village make their way through the streets. |
A gang of paedophiles operating in the town recorded their attacks then sold the
videos or used them to blackmail their victims' families, it is claimed
A law criminalising sexual abuse of children is currently being debated by Pakistan's Senate.
These reforms are all the more urgent given the growing number of cases being reported, according to child rights' group Sahil, which records statistics based on press reports in the absence of official data.
The group recorded fewer than 2,000 cases in 2008, but more than 3,500 in 2014, a rise it said 'reflects an increase in social awareness of the problem'.
Veteran human rights activist Hina Jilani said that while increased reporting was welcome, cases must be handled sensitively - noting that activists, judges and police were not trained in how to question child victims.
Another obstacle to greater reporting of crimes are the families themselves, who are often reluctant to intervene when they feel their 'honour' is at stake, according to Jilani.