News and Events

Manizeh Bano, Executive Director of Pakistan's "Sahil" NGO, Visits IMEY

Pakistan visit

May 2003 — IMEY recently hosted a visit by Manizeh Bano Director of the Pakistani welfare NGO "Sahil." This group has chosen to deal with a particularly sensitive issue, child sex abuse. Their approach combines elements derived from international programs, which Sahil is attempting to adapt to conditions in Pakistan - counseling, legal aid, shelter, self-help groups, training of police, and education.

Pictured at right are Director of IMEY, Cheryl Benard, and Director of Sahil, Manizeh Bano

Ms. Bano provided the following narrative about Sahil.

"Our project offers counseling and if needed refuge in cases of sexual abuse. The problem is widespread in Pakistan, just as it is elsewhere in the world. One difference is that the strict gender-separation prevalent in our country has resulted in as many cases of boys as there are of girls. When girls are affected, it is almost invariably a case of incest; they are kept away from men outside the family but not from those who are within their often very large extended family. For boys the incident may happen in one of the religious schools, the Madrassas. That is a milieu that tends towards such occurrences.

"Due to the abovementioned reasons it was important to us to integrate the religious teachers and Mullahs into the process. It was very difficult to convince official institutions that they would have to be mentioned in our texts. But they had to give their consent; otherwise we would not have been allowed to use the books in class. We spent a long time working on the formulation. Ultimately we wrote: "A teacher and a Mullah deserve your full attention. But even they do not have the right to request of you something that you feel is not right."

"We are trying, mainly with the help of school teachers, to proliferate education and awareness. With the use of international books and materials we teach children to properly appraise situations and to have the courage to say "no" to an adult if their requests cause an uneasy feeling and just seem wrong to the child.

"In addition we offer legal advice and self-help groups, and in emergencies we can provide refuge. In the realm of legal advice we have found that even after we are initially contacted, victims usually end up shying away from actually pressing charges. Typically they call us, we explain what legal options they have, and then they shy away. We have followed up to see what happens thereafter, and we found that usually, the cases are dealt with through some other venue. Sometimes the families deal with it amongst themselves. They say: leave it to us, we will punish the culprit — or the offender's family gives the victim's family money, or they deal with it internally in some other way — but they don't go public. In other cases the parents don't care. They write this child off. Or the mother cares a lot, but she does not dare to push the matter because she finds that she does not have any support. Such cases make us very sad.

"Our self-help group is in its beginning stages, but we already have many applicants. Here we assemble adults who as children were victims of incest or other abuse, and they now want to come to terms with it.

"One positive aspect is the fact that the media and the schools are very supportive of our efforts. Our work is often reported in the press and more and more schools are using our program.

"I used to be active in the Pakistani women's movement. This movement did not develop positively. We want to open women's shelters along European lines, but the result was more like a kind of minimum-security prison. The women are not allowed to leave the house, they are supervised, they are forced to work, and the goal is a transfer to a new husband, although in most cases there aren't even thorough checks concerning the character of the man. The only positive thing one can say about the matter despite all the problems is that it still is much better than an actual prison. Women's prisons in Pakistan are more than just terrible. It's better to be in one of these minimum-security prisons.

"In conservative Islamic countries such as Afghanistan I would, given my experiences in Pakistan, pursue to simultaneous tracks. I would build women's shelters for women that are not considered "suspect" in their conservative societies, such as widows. Anybody can understand that a widow needs a safe place to live and some kind of job-training, and nobody will be against it. On the other hand a woman who ran away from an abusive husband or a girl that fled an unwanted arranged marriage, that is something controversial in conservative Islamic neighborhoods, because such a woman will be accused of all sorts of things — having a lover, being an immoral disobedient person, etc. It is better to start with the widows and then slowly, when everybody has gotten used to the institution, start integrating other women, slowly and unnoticed. In the meantime one has to provide some form of security to these other women as well. Currently they land in a prison. More realistically one may need the half-way step of the "minimum-security prisons," not because it is right or fair, but because it's the only way to protect these women from rabid fundamentalists until the level of education is higher and one can start to retrain these people's beliefs. In these "minimum-security prisons" the women can receive some sort of job training. In the event that they return to their families there must be a strong social-worker component, so that the husbands or the parents know that they are under surveillance and that they cannot mistreat the women or the girls without consequences. "

Ms. Bano's approach combines elements derived from international programs, which Sahil is attempting to adapt to conditions in Pakistan. One of their outreach tools is a brochure intended to help youth identify and respond to high risk situations.

These sample pages (PDF) of the brochure offer a polite way for a young boy, "Mintu" to extract himself from a situation that makes him feel uncomfortable. The maulawi of his Koran school has asked Mintu to go to his room with him and help him find his spectacles, which he has misplaced. Mintu has a strange feeling about going to the maulawi's room by himself, so he says, "I'm really sorry that you lost your spectacles, but my parents are waiting for me. If I'm late they'll get worried. Goodbye."

The school day is finished, and everyone is preparing to go home. But Mintu sees one of his classmates still sitting in his bench, seeming dejected. In fact, he notices that the other boy is crying. He tells Mintu that the thing he is crying about is a secret. Mintu informs him that there are different kinds of secrets. Some, like keeping a gift a secret to surprise your mother on her birthday, are good secrets that make people happy. At other times, however, keeping a secret can cause bad problems, because some things can only get better if you talk about them.