Horror of child abuse finally out in the open in Muslim Pakistan
Stream of sexual attacks make headline news in a traditional Muslim nation that is being forced to open its eyes to heinous crimes
In a rural village in Pakistan's eastern rice belt, two teenage sisters left for school one recent day on a muddy village path far too narrow for cars.
Within hours, they were dead, their bodies left facedown along a swampy canal after they had been raped and shot multiple times. By the next morning, their deaths were news across Pakistan, the latest in a grisly stream of sexual attacks on minors.
"They were identified by their clothes," Muhammad Nazir, the victims' uncle, said. "All we know for sure: They went from their house to school, and they were murdered."
For generations, rape was a taboo subject in this conservative Muslim society. Just a decade ago, the news about the sisters might never have travelled beyond their rural area.
But thanks to a freer media and a push by child-welfare advocates to get families to report such crimes, the number of cases under investigation is rising, as is the outrage of parents, the public and advocacy groups.
"People are now reporting things, and people are now seeing children are suffering heinous, horrible crimes," said Narjis Zaidi, a human rights advocate in Islamabad.
On the same day in late September that the sisters were killed on the outskirts of Gujranwala, the body of a 13-year-old girl was found on a Karachi beach after she had been raped and killed on the way to school.
A week earlier, a five-year-old girl was raped multiple times after being kidnapped. She was then dumped outside a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city.
And on a single day - September 20 - Pakistan's Express Tribune reported on the alleged rape of a four-year-old boy by his school principal in Faisalabad, and the rapes of another boy, also four, and a 14-year-old girl. The teenager had been gang-raped by four men over two days.
Each case has brought new waves of angry mothers besieging police stations demanding public executions. In Karachi, after the rape of the five-year-old in Lahore, schoolgirls paraded with signs displaying a noose. In Pakistan's culturally conservative northwest, female lawmakers attempted to block roads in Peshawar to protest the crime.
"This country has gone to the dogs," said Shazia Shaheen, coordinator for the Mumkin Alliance, a Pakistan-based coalition of organisations that advocate for battered women.
Activists and government leaders note that sexual violence is hardly unique to Pakistan, citing widespread abuses across much of the Middle East and South Asia, including the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December that shocked India.
What makes the reports in Pakistan especially notable is that they have emerged at all, reflecting a broader awareness by victims and the news media.
Activists say the media attention can be credited in part to the opening of several dozen private television news stations after the government's monopoly on electronic media ended in 2002. That has led to more aggressive coverage of topics previously ignored.
Several rape cases have been well publicised in recent years, including that of Mukhtar Mai, who made international headlines after she spoke out about being gang-raped in 2002 on orders from village elders. The convictions of all but one of six men charged in connection with the case were overturned.
In Punjab, Pakistan's most-populous province, there was extensive coverage in 2010 and 2011 of a serial rapist who attacked eight children, leaving some of them dead, said Muhammad Imtiaz Ahmed, of Pakistan's Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.
"After that, the media, the police, educationally, all started talking about how we need to do a better job of protecting children," he said.
In Gujranwala, where the sisters' blood still stains the grass, the local police commander said he was under pressure to make an arrest. "With the media attention and pressure from higher authorities, we have to do our job," Zubar Warriach said.