The rape and murder of another child in Kasur has prompted a range of ill-informed or misinformed responses from both print and electronic media platforms, and politicians. Self-appointed ‘experts’ with little or no experience of how to handle such a case, get airtime and column space, but there is little anywhere about what should be done beyond catch the man responsible and then lynch him. Countering violence with yet more violence is no solution. Suddenly there are dozens of child protection specialists: politicians, media anchors, citizens, actors, lawyers, anybody who chooses to connect with the unbearable pain that the child victim’s parents are going through. Sadly, ethical guidelines have vanished into thin air.
Whilst this sympathy is natural, it is also dangerous if not tempered by reason and objective information. Some things have been changing almost unnoticed. For instance, there is a developing climate of disclosure in Pakistan in which children are more comfortable with telling parents or caregivers that they have been inappropriately touched, but disclosure is of little value if those to whom the disclosure is made are unable to respond to it. Parental and caregiver awareness needs to be universally raised and that can be done via a cooperative intervention by a coordinated group comprising civil society actors, NGOs and INGOs, agencies and existing government bodies. There are child protection offices staffed by qualified social workers in Punjab. The model could be replicated nationally.
There are ill-informed assumptions that ‘the government’ is doing nothing in the face of a developing problem and that Pakistan has done nothing to curb child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE) in the country. This is not true. In a historic move, Pakistan has amended its penal code in March 2016 to criminalise CSAE and make it a non-compoundable and non-bailable offence. At the Saarc level, Pakistan has also been in the lead to develop a Saarc regional strategy against CSAE and its online manifestations such as child pornography. The regional strategy will be further worked on during the International Human Rights conference to be held in Islamabad from 19th to 21st February 2018 and eventually submitted to all Saarc countries’ governments for endorsement.
Additionally, the federal Ministry of Human Rights has agreed to develop a national policy against CSAE in collaboration with SAIEVAC (a Saarc apex body) and civil society. A workshop will take place to this effect on 22nd February in the federal capital.
Another noteworthy structural improvement is the enactment of a law to establish the National Commission on the Rights of the Child so that enforcement of child rights — which includes right to protection, can be monitored. The appointment of an ombudsperson is also significant. Lastly, the federal Ministry of Human Rights has been working for years on the enactment of a child protection Bill for the Islamabad Capital Territory along with a reviewed Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, aiming to divert juveniles in conflict with the law from jail because the risks of CSAE are magnified exponentially in a jail environment.
At a provincial level, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan have enacted comprehensive child protection laws that clearly criminalise CSAE. In Punjab, the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau provides rescue and rehabilitation services to child victims of CSAE. In K-P, the provincial government has established a child protection and welfare commission and child protection units at district levels along with a pilot child protection institution ‘ZamungKor’ for children who are highly vulnerable to CSAE.
At an institutional level, judicial activism and collaboration of law-enforcement agencies with civil society have moved effectively to create another historical milestone. The first child court in the country was established in Lahore by the chief justice of the Lahore High Court in December 2017 and training has been regularly conducted by qualified and experienced child protection and gender experts in the police or in the judicial academies.
Other actions by the Sindh and Punjab governments to enhance education and counter child labour also indirectly contribute to reducing CSAE. More importantly, the Sindh legislation raising minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 plays a vital role in curbing what is nothing but a disguised form of child sexual abuse that some ill-informed or ill-intended stakeholders justify through a distorted religious interpretation that the OIC has dismissed through its Khartoum Declaration.
This is not to say that the state has done its job and that the problem is anywhere near resolution because clearly not.
There is an urgent need to work on a national policy to set up guidelines, and perhaps even more importantly establish a cross-sectoral coordination body to bring the many disconnected threads of child protection together. Establishing provincial child rights commissions and protection mechanisms aligned with international standards, and shifting from welfare-based models to empowering ones that are child centered and gender sensitive, is equally essential. A rights-based approach is required where full institutionalisation is used as a last resort. Those mechanisms would not only allow easier referral but also adequate management of cases of CSAE.
Then it is crucial to develop specialised units in the police, able to use forensic and new technologies along with knowledge of criminology, victimology and behavioural sciences to tackle cases of CSAE.
Last but not the least, training teachers, caregivers, LEAs, doctors, community members, parents and children themselves on child protection, positive disciplining and good parenting is an emergency. The state must conduct nationwide sensitisation campaigns using cognitive tools such as arts, drama and radio that directly impact viewers in a culturally-sensitive manner. This may be challenging, but this is feasible. Overcoming taboos will also require a reinforced political and social commitment to evolve and unlearn some of what we may have already learnt. The abusers are usually our own family members or people close to us. Parents, individuals who will have the courage to support the child and challenge family/cultural norms need support and protection. A mountain to climb but not impossible.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2018.
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