Pakistan society must rise against child abuse

There is a need for a holistic approach to end abuse, reduce the level of vulnerability of children and create a safe environment for them in Pakistan.

By Waqar Mustafa (Wide Angle)

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Published: Sun 13 Oct 2019, 10:41 PM

Last updated: Mon 14 Oct 2019, 12:43 AM

I was in my early teens when on my mother's prodding I wrote my first op-ed. It was for an Urdu-language newspaper on the abduction and sale of children. My father, an educationist, was posted in a different city and so, in his absence, my mother became more protective of us siblings after the article's publication. The mail I received after its printing included a letter of appreciation and a brochure from some organisation which said it worked for child protection. However, my mother had her doubts. The photographs of its members on the leaflet looked so burly she feared they might as well be kidnappers! My mother would do grocery herself and didn't allow us to go out unattended, especially after sundown. Mosques, now and then, blaring announcements about some child going missing would toughen my mother's code.
Things weren't so bad then, perhaps, as are now for children in Pakistan. The country is placed at 154th out of 182 countries in the global ranking on child rights, lower than other countries of South Asia, based on indicators including those on children's protection. Despite having the right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse, children - about 48 per cent of the population - suffer in homes, families, schools, workplaces and communities, exposed to sexual abuse and exploitation, trafficking, child labour, bullying, cyber-bullying, gang violence, child marriage, and physically and emotionally violent child discipline.
According to a non-government organisation, Sahil, the cases of sexual abuse of children - mostly between six and 15 years of age - have increased from nine a day in 2017 to 12 cases a day during 2018 totalling 3,307 cases. A total of 1,304 cases of child abuse have been reported in the first six months of 2019. Twelve boys and four girls have been killed after sexual assault. According to Unicef, 16 per cent Pakistani children between the age of 5 and 17 are engaged in child labour. It estimates that 21 per cent of Pakistani girls are married before their 18th birthday and 3 per cent before they turn 15 often resulting in frequent and unplanned pregnancies that pose a threat to both the young mothers and their infants. A child rights group, Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, says corporal punishment causes up to 35,000 children in Pakistan to drop out of school every year. Children, especially the street children, remain vulnerable to trafficking.
Now, Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a new mobile app that parents can use to report a missing child, which immediately alerts high-ranking police officers. And a legislative panel has passed a bill for introduction in the National Assembly. It will pave way for setting up Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency, where a child missing case will be reported and it will generate an automatic alert. It will also introduce response and recovery mechanism of missing children to prevent incidents like murder of Zainab Ansari, a seven-year-old from Kasur who was murdered last year.
There is a need for a holistic approach to end abuse, reduce the level of vulnerability of children and create a safe environment for them. It should start with understanding the causes of abuse and violence and addressing them by promoting positive norms. To end harmful practices, advocacy through discussions, education programmes and communication for development strategies can work well. Prevention and response to violence, exploitation and abuse should cut across a child's life cycle.
Until that happens, cases of abuse and killing of minors keep surfacing making parents afraid to let their children go outside unescorted. Father of one of the four children who were found abused and killed in the Pakistani town of Chunian last month has been quoted by a newspaper as saying that they tie their remaining three children with a rope in the night, just to make sure they don't slip away from them.
Waqar Mustafa is a journalist and commentator based in Lahore, Pakistan

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