Police said eight girls have been sexually assaulted in the region in recent months, as public outrage grows over perceived inaction of authorities.
The rape and murder of Zainab Ansari has had a profound impact on Pakistan, including protests and the sacking of a local police chief, in the two short days after the eight-year-old’s body was found on a rubbish tip in eastern Punjab on Tuesday.
Along with an international outcry, there have been violent protests in Lahore and Karachi, as well as in the city of Kasur, eastern Punjab, where she lived. Police said Zainab had been raped and strangled to death.
Public officials have attempted to contain the outpouring of anger from the public, saying that they are working hard to investigate whether there is a connection between Zainab’s death and the sexual assaults on eight other girls in the region in recent months.
Parents of murdered eight-year-old condemn Pakistan police
Two dead in Pakistan protests after Zainab Ansari killing
What happened to Zainab?
Zainab disappeared as she walked to a religious studies class on 4 January. Her parents were on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at the time and the child was staying with relatives.
Police on Thursday released CCTV images showing the child holding a man’s hand as she walked away from her home. They appealed for help identifying the man shown.
Her body was found at a rubbish tip more than a mile away from her home in Kasur, Pakistan, on Tuesday.
Police said she has been raped and strangled to death.
CCTV shows Zainab Ansari’s last moments as unknown man leads her away before her rape and murder
What has reaction been?
Zainab’s parents claimed the police were negligent in their attempts to find her after she was first reported missing. Her father, Ameen Ansari, said: “My relatives and neighbours told me that the police used to come, have food and leave.
“While they didn’t do anything, my friends and family spent day and night looking for my daughter.”
Anger at the state’s handling of the investigation erupted into violence on Wednesday, as protesters attacked the police station and government buildings while others threw rocks and smashed car windows with sticks.
Two protesters died in the unrest and dozens more were injured. Four police officers have since been arrested for firing into crowds in Kasur but the state has not confirmed whether the deaths are linked.
And with thousands then flocking to pay their respects at a funeral service held for the child in the city later on Wednesday, the authorities have acted to attempt to stave off the criticism.
Punjab’s Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, met with Mr Ansari on Thursday to hear his concerns, and assured him that justice would be done, according to officials.
Mr Sharif also fired Kasur’s police chief over negligence in the case, according to a state government statement, and three police officers were arrested for opening fire at the mob instead of into the air during Wednesday’s clashes.
Why has this case caused such widespread outrage?
Zainab was the twelfth girl to have been abducted, raped and murdered in Kasur district in the past year, according to police.
“This is not the first time such horrific acts have happened,” the cricket star turned politician Imran Khan tweeted.
"The condemnable & horrific rape & murder of little Zainab exposes once again how vulnerable our children are in our society. We have to act swiftly to punish the guilty & ensure that our children are better protected.”
A poll in 2011 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation named Pakistan as the third most dangerous country in the world for women, due to child marriages, acid attacks and punishment by stoning. An average of 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported from across Pakistan every day, according to data compiled by child protection charity Sahil.
A total of 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported from across the country in the first six months of 2017 alone, the figures show and the problem of child sexual abuse is something that has been repeatedly raised by charities and child safety campaigners.
More than 60 per cent of the reported cases were from the Punjab, the charity found.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said she was “heartbroken” by the news of Zainab’s killing, saying: “This has to stop. Gov[ernment] and the concerned authorities must take action.”
Actresses Mahira Khan and Sanam Saeed were among those who demonstrated in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, on Thursday.
"We need to start talking about sexual abuse openly,” said Khan, one of Pakistan’s most popular actresses. "We need to include that in our school curriculums. Awareness is key. Associating abuse and rape with shame is why countless [attacks] go unheard of. Stop with the shame.”
Has anything been done?
Pakistan tightened its legislation to protect children in 2016 – criminalising sexual assault, child pornography and trafficking for the first time – after a paedophile ring, circulating pornographic videos, was exposed in Kasur. Previously, only rape was criminalised.
But Mamtaz Gohar, a spokesman for Sahil, said not enough has been done to secure justice for an estimated 280 children abused in the case.
"Almost all of the criminals have been released on bail. The justice system and the police investigation is really skewed in our country,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Independent.co.uk