Tuesday, September 28, 2010


“Black holes are places where ordinary gravity has become so extreme that it overwhelms all other forces in the Universe. Once inside, nothing can escape a black hole's gravity — not even light.”

The situation Pakistan finds itself in currently could be rendered akin to being sucked into a supermassive black hole. And I’m not just being dramatic here. The fact that we face a myriad of problems on a multitude of fronts is hardly open to argument: a brutal tribal insurgency, endemic corruption and economic instability all compound the gravitational forces that are pulling us closer and closer to the event horizon. With issues of such existential proportions playing out in the foreground it is only natural that problems with apparently less severe implications on our nationhood –such as human rights issues –are dismissed as mere background noise. However, such issues have the potential to manifest into problems with nation-wide implications, provided the requisite space to do so. As such, due to a combination of many factors adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH) issues have been ignored for too long; and compounded by the fact that Pakistan is currently housing the largest youth cohort (ages 10 – 24) in its history (estimated at 54.2million), have wrought a situation with severe implications.

As a society that invokes social propriety norms to banish all discussion of sex and sexuality from spheres of public discussion to protect its ‘moral fabric’, it is rather ironic that these norms have put the youth in a position that is hardly morally acceptable. Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) issues are hardly discussed outside the context of private and public sector family planning services for married couples. Additionally, in the absence of sexual health education in schools, important stakeholders in the lives of young people, such as parents and teachers, are also hesitant in discussing such issues with young people.
The problems that arise from this aforementioned social denial of ASRH knowledge and rights are most severe when experienced by children before the onset of puberty, mainly because of the vulnerability and impressionability that characterize the youth at this particular stage in their lives. More often than not pre-pubescent youngsters lack the necessary knowledge and life-skills to protect their bodies from the indulgent appetite of sexual predators. The ill-fated victims of such wanton depravity have to deal with the consequences of their fate for the rest of their lives.

The severity of the problem is only exacerbated by the fact that there is an evident lack of will on part of the relevant authorities to stop sipping chai and munching on jalebis and, possibly, do something. For instance, despite becoming a signatory to the UN Convention on Rights of the Child in 1990, successive Pakistani governments have failed to enact legal provisions that comprehensively protect children against sexual abuse. Existing laws under the Pakistan Penal Code provide that any sexual violence to a child is punishable by up to two years only, whereas, under the same law, sodomy is punishable up to a maximum of ten years. Clearly someone needs to help the government get their priorities straight. Maybe they aren’t aware that in 2005 a “grand” total of 1719 cases of child sexual abuse were recorded. And those are only the ones that made it to print!

Sadly, the sexual health problems of the youth don’t disappear after puberty. Infact, the numerous problems this cohort faces paints a grim picture for their future. The ASRH knowledge deficit plays a part after puberty as well. According to the study on “Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Young People in Pakistan”, conducted by the World Population Foundation, “...puberty begins in panic for most young people, since they are provided no prior information regarding Sexual and Reproductive Health.” A lack of sexual counseling services in schools and clinics only adds to their plight. Lacking proper knowledge and skills to deal with their own sexuality, the youth are also prone to engaging in a number of unhealthy sexual practices that have adverse health outcomes. More often than not these sexual acts take place without adequate protection in the form of condoms. This puts adolescents at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other STD’s. A grim picture, indeed!

In a nutshell, it’s “two minutes to Midnight” and we have yet formulate a multi-faceted strategy that addresses these numerous problems on a national scale. Such a strategy is necessary if we are to prevent the youth from plunging further into the seemingly endless depths of a black hole that our own attitudes and actions have created for them. Once again, I am not being dramatic, although I wish I were.

This article was printed in Dawn, issue of 18th July, 2010.

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