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In honour of children

Although the country has seen significant progress on the legislative front, more needs to be done to eradicate violence against children


LAHORE/ISLAMABAD: At least eight minors suffer abuse across the country every day, says a report on child sexual violence in Pakistan by Sahil, a non-governmental organisation working for children’s rights.

The cruel numbers shared by the NGO reveal that indicators including abduction, sexual assault, attempted rape, child neglect, child marriage, murder, beatings were all too common in certain parts of the country. The report revealed that 51 per cent of the victims were minor girls whereas 49pc victims of child abuse were boys.

The children most vulnerable to criminal incidents were aged between six years to 15 years while minors of five years and below were also being assaulted.

In addition to this, the data gathered through media tracking as well as official statistics obtained using the right to information law, showed that physical, sexual and emotional mistreatment of children, in context of familial and work relationships, resulted in both potential and actual harm to the affected minors’ physical health, survival and social development.

However, not all is doom and gloom as the year 2021 saw improvements in the legislative work as well as action for child protection wherever possible. The reporting of child abuse cases increased and was highlighted frequently on media platforms and the child-friendly courts were also established in Punjab.

More communities gained knowledge on sensitive matters related to minors. Moreover, children were educated to understand from a very young age that no place is totally safe and that they must share any ordeal with someone they trust.

The Punjab Children Protection Welfare Bureau (CPWB) chairperson Sarah Ahmad told Bol News that 2021 was a successful year for child protection. “We took many initiatives and we did not stop there; the CPWB ensured implementation across Punjab. The work we started in eight districts has been extended to all the 36 districts of the province. The expansion led to more Child Protection Institutes (CPI); the one in Faisalabad that was inaugurated by Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar is now accommodating 200 minors”.

Some efforts have also been made in Sahiwal, Sargodha and Dera Ghazi Khan as well and the CPI projects are in the pipeline, the chairperson added. “Around 1,200 children are living in the provincial welfare bureau. Moreover, the vocational and capacity building has also been introduced for which stitching centres were established. Nursing courses have also been offered while sports classes were given to the kids. The minors also have access to computer labs”, she added.

Earlier, these privileges were only available to minors in Lahore but now the bureau has made them accessible to all children living with us, she revealed. “Pakistan still needs improvement. We only operate in Punjab and so the CPWB’s authority ends here. Services such as child-friendly courts, doctors, psychologists are not there in Sindh or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa so far. We should have these facilities nationwide for safeguarding children’s rights”.

Earlier in Punjab, there were implementation issues but now the laws are being strictly adhered to, she commented. “Legislation work is overall better across Pakistan. Sindh also has the right laws for child protection. Legal services are crucial for abuse and torture cases and sections should be imposed on the abusers and arrests should be made.

“Under the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children (PDNC) Act, 2004, the welfare bureau’s legal section has custody of hundreds of vulnerable minors. This law allows us to lodge first information reports against those involved in violence against children.”

Moreover, the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 carries a ban on minors below the age of 15 to work as house help, she shared. “Such laws and legal services are also there for children living under unauthorised custody.”

For the lower-income groups, where parents are often unable to take their children’s welfare and growth seriously, awareness campaigns and counselling are still important, she explained. “Due to the parent’s disadvantages, lifestyle and everyday pressures, they leave their children unattended. In desperate times, they even sell them for employment”, Sarah regretted.

The NGOs as well as bodies such as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have already done a lot of research and the situation is pretty clear, she asserted. “Action is definitely needed now. The international community should actually work on ground. There is so much work that needs to be done now with the welfare bureau especially regarding capacity building of the children”.

The most vulnerable children are those who have been tortured, she clarified. “They need immediate assistance and rehabilitation”.

Due to their trauma, the CPWB tries to ‘’bring them back to life by spending more time giving them care and emotional support, the chairperson commented.

Khalil Ahmed, programme manager at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) stated, “Overall, 2021 was a bad year for children’s welfare. Throughout the past year, more and more incidents of child sexual abuse have surfaced in certain parts of the country. Our commitments on an international level are not up to the mark. The birth registrations are overall very low and this makes it difficult for the government to allocate more resources for minors and strengthen child protection mechanisms”.

However, the SPARC programme manager added, there were milestones achieved in terms of legislation and the government policy on child protection.

On September 28, the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights approved the ICT Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill, 2021. This law will protect minors and this protection will be guaranteed in any place; be it schools, child care institutions, rehabs or even workplaces. Even juvenile justice systems will have to abide by this law now.

He revealed that the sixth periodic report by state parties was still not submitted by Pakistan to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). “The country ratified the UNCRC in 1990 and is obliged to submit the periodic reports.”

According to the federal ministry of human rights website, Pakistan submitted its fifth periodic report on the UNCRC in 2015 and the UN committee considered it in its May 2016 meeting for a better understanding of the situation of children’s rights.

Ahmed further said the UN committee also set forth recommendations in 2016 for a way forward for children’s rights in the country. “After the sixth periodic report will be submitted by the State, then civil society organisations will also submit their own reports of the ground realities of vulnerable children”.

Effects of pandemic

Another factor that has wreaked havoc on the innocent children is Pakistan’s coronavirus pandemic situation. “This hellish virus is altering family dynamics in many ways. The lockdowns caused a significant number of school dropout cases. Many parents lost their jobs and the minors had no choice but to abandon school and college to figure out their next step of survival.

“This threatened to put already vulnerable minors at even greater risk of neglect and violence. Unemployment increased during the virus-induced lockdowns and this evidently led to malnutrition.”

The SPARC staffer told Bol News that the country’s labour departments in collaboration with UNICEF had to complete a child labour survey of Pakistan in 2021 as well. “Unfortunately, this survey could not be completed on time either. The lack of data has made it very difficult to assess what the actual welfare situation is for minors”.

Ahmed warned that children in the country were the ‘biggest victims’ of tobacco products. The local tobacco industry targets minors as ‘replacement smokers,’ he claimed.

“Around 1,200 Pakistani children — aged between six years old to 15 years — start smoking every day. These children are at risk of continuing to smoke throughout their lives. Tobacco is a silent killer with as many as 438 deaths recorded daily due to its consumption”.

Iftikhar Mubarik, who serves as executive director at Search for Justice, an NGO working to uplift marginalised children, stated that parliament has a vision to prohibit humiliating punishments given to minors. “The anti-corporal punishment law has been passed and more needs to be done to develop provincial legislative framework to deal with this heinous crime.

“The National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) is still looking for adequate human and financial resources to act on the issue in a more efficient manner” he also said.

“To be fair, the NCRC Act, 2017, the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018, the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act, the 2020 legislation at the federal level as well as the provincial laws to deal with prevention of child labour and the promotion of children’s education are remarkable achievements,” he elaborated.

Apart from this, the key areas of attention should be to explore ways for effective ministerial coordination, he stated. “Laws such as the juvenile justice system act requires inter-departmental work by police, lawyers, the judiciary, prison, social welfare, probation and reclamation for its implementation”, said Mubarik.

Furthermore, to institutionalize child protection, anti-violence notions will have to be introduced in the school curriculums, he explained. “We try to help children through multidimensional interventions through advocacy, provision of legal aid and psychological counselling. Parenting courses and behavioural campaigns run on a regular basis are also crucial to promote sensitive parenting among community members”, he said.

Responding to the question on more research, the children’s rights activist elaborated that research is definitely needed around the subject of online safety of children. “During the pandemic, more and more children were exposed to digital devices for longer periods. There needs to be evidences the children using digital platforms are safe from cybercrimes”, he suggested.

The country has seen significant progress on the legislative front, yet violence against children still exists. It is an urban as well as a rural problem. While the intensity of the problem is not the same everywhere in the country, the problem itself disproportionately affects those children who belong to the lower-income backgrounds. An analytical framework is needed to further understand aspects of the lives of minor citizens, particularly their social identities and class background which eventually combine to create the different modes of abuse and violence perpetrated by others.

Fulfilling promises to meet the material and emotional needs is the first step towards ensuring safety of children. Yet, more needs to be done to identify the multiple advantages children possess and the many disadvantages that put them behind other children; some of these intersecting factors can prove empowering while others oppressing.

A safe, secure and protected domestic environment for the country’s children free from abuse and other forms of negativity can ensure memorable childhoods and a way forward for the next generation.

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