Who will save Pakistan's kids from abuse?
As many as 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported from across Pakistan every day.
By Waqar Mustafa
Published: Tue 16 Jan 2018, 9:00 PM
Last updated: Tue 16 Jan 2018, 11:48 PM
Pakistani children, 31 per cent of the country's population, will see no hope for themselves if the wave of anger generated by the rape-murder of eight-year-old Zainab Ansari a few days ago fails to get them a concrete mechanism that protects them.
As many as 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported from across Pakistan every day, according to data collected by a non-governmental organisation Sahil. As many as, 1,764 cases of child abuse were reported from across the country in the first six months of 2017 and 4,139 in 2016, or, let's say, 11 a day. The numbers can increase if the families who do not register a complaint are taken into account.
About 720 cases of child assault were reported in the last three years from Kasur alone, the city where Ansari lived. The area received attention in 2015 when a gang of about 25 men was held for blackmailing scores of children into making sex videos. This was between 2009 and 2014. The scandal led to an amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code in 2016. While child sex abuse was already a crime, the amendment included child pornography and sexual assault (other than rape) in the code making it punishable by seven years in prison. But implementation of the law has not been effective in the absence of tools to investigate and successfully prosecute these crimes, thus creating a culture of impunity.
A national policy is in the works against child abuse. A law has been enacted to set up a National Commission on the Rights of the Child for monitoring the enforcing rights. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have enacted child protection laws criminalising child sexual abuse. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has also established a child protection and welfare commission and child protection units at district levels.
In Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau provides rescue and rehabilitation services to abuse survivors. A child court, the first of its kind in the country was established in Lahore, Punjab's provincial capital, in December 2017. The Punjab government has also announced that a curriculum for child protection will be introduced in schools. "We have no choice other than to include it (child abuse) in the syllabus. We have to remove taboos on the issue. We will also hold dialogue with the people who oppose this move," said government spokesperson Malik Ahmad Khan to a television channel.
A committee formed last week on safeguarding children, in its first session, has proposed formation of a Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) database and amendments to the child protection laws to curb child abuse in the province. The Sindh government has also formed a committee for the effective implementation of child protection rights. This happened after the ruling Pakistan People's Party Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto's announcement to introduce an awareness programme on child sexual abuse as part of the school curriculum.
However, these measures have not helped protect children from the hands of such pervert minds. Lack of follow-up and failure to strictly implement the laws have made the system flawed. Words, too, have often failed to match actions. A 2009 Unesco guide explained that without proper knowledge, particularly a curriculum at school, young people were "potentially vulnerable to coercion, abuse and exploitation". Yet there has been no recognition in the society or within government institutions of the need to provide sex abuse prevention education to children, teachers and health care professionals.
In fact, in 2011, the Punjab government cancelled a memorandum of understanding for the inclusion of Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) in curricula of public schools, bowing to right-wing pressure. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent human rights watchdog, has suggested effective awareness-raising and reporting processes as the way forward in curbing increased in child abuse cases.
After each gruesome incident, anger and fear fill the people, the society and the government. The focus then is on police negligence and how the perpetrators have to be punished.
The sentiments Zainab Ansari's rape and murder have stirred need to be channelised into a strong push for implementing the existing child safeguarding mechanisms. Unless this is done, more Zainab Ansaris will leave families and countries in tears.
Waqar Mustafa is a print, broadcast and online journalist based in Pakistan