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People chant slogans and hold signs to condemn the rape and killing of 7-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur, during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan January 11, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

Yesterday, Pakistani news anchor Kiran Naz went on the air with her young daughter to protest on camera the rape and killing of Zainab Ansari, a 7-year-old girl, whose body was dumped in a pile of garbage.

“It is true when they say that the smallest coffins are the heaviest,” Naz said, her daughter sitting on her lap. “And all of Pakistan is burdened by the weight of her coffin.”

Zainab went missing on January 4 and her brutalized corpse was discovered five days later, leading to widespread protests in Pakistan.

The cruel indifference of some crimes can shake a nation. But too often, incidents of child sex abuse remain hidden.

According to the Islamabad-based nongovernmental organization Sahil, an average of 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported daily across Pakistan. Zainab was among the dozen children to be murdered in Kasur district in Punjab province in the past year. In 2015, police identified a gang of child sex abusers in the same district.

It’s not just Pakistan – sexual violence against girls and women is commonplace in South Asia. In India, the crime that awoke the nation to this cruel reality happened in 2012, when a 23-year-old student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was gang-raped and left fatally injured on the road. Indians erupted in rage, demanding that the government take action to end sexual violence.

Although much remains to be done, the Indian parliament eventually did respond, unanimously adopting reforms to prosecute sexual violence and initiating new policies. Yet even before the Pandey attack, the Indian government had enacted a law to protect children from sexual abuse.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published Breaking the Silence, which included detailed recommendations to the Indian authorities on protecting children from sexual abuse. Similar steps are needed in Pakistan. These include believing children who report abuse, ensuring victims receive respectful care from health providers, and making sure police respond in a way that protects victims instead of harming them further.

Child sex abuse is not inevitable. A strong public and government response can mean the difference between life and death for little ones who deserve our protection. The heavy burden of little coffins needs to end. 

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