Our self-designed brutality

Zainab, Maham, Zohra, Uzma, Erum, Tayyaba and now Rizwana attract our attention only after they have already happened


Naeem Sadiq August 03, 2023

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Brutally tortured, with grievous head wounds, broken ribs and lacerations all across her body, Rizwana was dumped at the back of a Rawalpindi bus-stop and her parents asked to take away the mutilated 13-year-old child. The sobbing parents picked up the injured daughter in their arms and undertook an 8-hour gruelling journey in a public bus to bring her to a government hospital in Sargodha – only to be told that she must be taken to yet another hospital in Lahore because of her critical condition.

Zainab, Maham, Zohra, Uzma, Erum, Tayyaba and now Rizwana attract our attention only after they have already happened. Why have we not questioned our chronically dysfunctional child protection mechanisms? How come every state institution failed to recognise that a 13-year-old domestic help was being barbarically tortured for six months in the capital city of Pakistan? How come not a single individual reported the matter? How come the Child protection agencies, the Helplines, the police, the emergency services and the hospitals failed to come to the rescue of the tortured girl? We, however, refuse to accept reality or to admit that we do not have even an ab initio child protection system in place.

To comprehend how a child protection system works, consider this recent real-life event. A 13-year-old child in a small town in Canada walked out of his home after a minor dispute with his parents. A resident who saw the child walking alone on the street at an unearthly hour realised his ‘duty to report’ and informed the police. Within the next 10 minutes, the police had arrived, picked up the child and taken him to a police station. The child was made to feel comfortable, asked a few verification questions and the Child Services informed. Although it was late at night, the Child Service workers promptly reached the police station and carried out a detailed interview of the child and later of the parents who were also asked to come over. The child was allowed to go back home with the parents once the Child Service officials were fully satisfied that it was safe to do so. The seamless procedures were implemented without any intervention from any external source.

What were the factors that resulted in the immediate recovery of the child who had simply walked out of his home in a sleepy town in Canada and those that concealed the child labour and torture for six months in the Capital city of Pakistan?

The first flaw lies in our ‘anecdotal’ approach to the issue of child protection. We prefer to be seen personally intervening to fix the latest disaster rather than developing a self-operating preventive child protection system. This ‘band-aid’ approach ignores millions of children who are being publicly abused each day.

The second critical discrepancy is our failure to adopt a ‘duty to report’ law for mandatory reporting of child abuse cases. Although hundreds of people knew about Rizwana being used as child labour, they chose to remain silent. Pakistan could have a sea change impact on child protection by declaring that every citizen and professional has a mandatory ‘duty to report’ any instance of child abuse to police or the Child Protection department. This includes a child found begging, lost, abandoned or working in any domestic or commercial establishment.

The third missing link is the complete absence of well-defined and documented response procedures/ actions that ought to be seamlessly linked and followed by police and the Child protection officers, on receiving a child abuse report. The current system works only when prompted by phone calls from higher-ups or influential individuals. Even after such procedures are developed, they will work only when massively prodded through the media.

Finally we fail to understand that child abuse is heavily fueled by poverty. Rizwana would not have been palmed off to work for 12 hours a day for Rs10,000 per month, had her father been receiving a decent minimum legal wage or EOBI. No child protection system can succeed when millions of people are willing to sell their children. Will the sane and pro-poor citizens come together to build a movement for a holistic child protection system in Pakistan?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2023.

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