The upsurge in cases of child sexual abuse in recent months raises concerns both about its underlying causes as well as about the existence of a comprehensive child protection system in Pakistan.
The recent rape, murder, and torching of five-year-old Marwah in Karachi sparked outrage among residents who staged a protest on the main road despite intervention by the police to clear the road for traffic.
Child abuse: Pakistan’s growing tumor
The ineffectiveness of a reactionary approach to incidents of child sexual abuse and other forms of abuse in curbing the crime, be it at the community or government level, has been proven time and again as the issue is rooted in moral degeneration.
Child protection, according to UNICEF, refers to preventing and responding to violence, exploitation, and abuse against children – including commercial sexual exploitation, trafficking, child labour, and other harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting.
Pakistan was among the principal signatories to the UN Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC) and among the first few countries to ratify the Convention in November 1990. Considerable progress has since been made over the three decades to harmonize domestic legislation with Pakistan’s international commitments vis-a-vis child rights, with significant legislative milestones having been achieved through the efforts of the Ministry of Human Rights to safeguard children from all forms of emotional, mental, and physical abuse and exploitation.
The passage of the Juvenile Justice System Act 2018 (JJSA) in May 2018, Zainab Alert Recovery and Response Act (ZARRA) in January this year, and the prohibition of child labour under the 1991 Child Employment Act in August demonstrate the commitment of the government to protecting the rights of children.
Creating a protective and safe environment for our children
While these legal interventions are laudable, considering the opposition encountered from various quarters, the essence of a child protection system entails the prevention of child abuse through the creation of a protective environment for children.
An analysis of the eight core components of building a protective environment for children in Pakistan’s context will highlight both the limitations and strengths of our child protection system which will help propose appropriate recommendations for establishing a conducive environment for the protection of children from violence, abuse, and exploitation.
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Pakistan fares fairly well with regards to the first four components that necessitate the government’s commitment to fulfilling children’s right to protection through enforcement of adequate legislation, addressing harmful attitudes and practices, and encouraging open discussions of child protection issues. The Ministry of Human Rights and civil society organizations working for the rights of children have played a commendable role in mainstreaming child rights issues through all these measures.
However, the last four components highlight the cracks in our child protection system that can be attributed to the rising cases of child abuse.
Cracks in our child protection system
We lack severely in terms of developing children’s life skills and knowledge. Despite being embedded in several international agreements ratified by Pakistan such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Life Skills Based Education (LSBE), also referred to as comprehensive sexuality education, is yet to become a part of the National Curriculum.
The anticipated backlash from the religious quarters over its inclusion in the National Curriculum for reasons as vague as incompatibility with our religious and cultural values, while staying tight-lipped about incidents of child abuse in religious seminaries perpetrated by the holier than thou religious teachers is condemnable, to say the least, and a key impediment to equipping children with necessary skills and knowledge to stay safe from all forms of abuse.
The sixth component of building a protective environment for children necessitates building capacities of families and communities. When attempting to work towards this component, poverty comes into play as a major factor. Poverty affects a family’s and community’s ability to cope with adversity and limits their choices with regards to protecting their children’s rights including their right to safety, good health, education, etc. Pakistan has to grapple with the sad reality of having the second-highest out of school children (OOSC) in the world, at 23 million, 12.5 million children trapped in child labour, 1.5 million children living, working, and begging on streets, and about a million children working as domestic help. Any community-based child protection mechanism has to be designed in cognizance of all these dynamics.
The last two components, providing essential services for prevention, recovery, and reintegration, including basic health, education, and protection; and establishing and implementing ongoing and effective monitoring, reporting, and oversight reflect the degree to which both the state and society take on the responsibility of protecting children.
Pakistan needs to take a proactive approach towards child abuse
In an ideal setup and the envisioned welfare state of the PTI government, all stakeholders would shoulder the onus of protecting children from all forms of harm, ensuring adequate reporting of crimes against children. Regretfully, this has not been the case.
The lack of cooperation from the police in cases of child abduction and abuse is a recurring complaint. The pleas of parents of missing children to register an FIR with the hope of timely recovery often go in vain.
It is also common knowledge that safe spaces like children’s parks are breeding grounds for child sexual abuse, yet society opts to respond to incidents of child abuse with riots and protests rather than monitoring and overseeing those spaces as a unified voluntary police force.
An inter-agency approach to child abuse where all stakeholders from government agencies to community leaders take ownership of responsibilities and commit to protecting children is the only viable solution to address the alarming surge in incidents of child sexual abuse.
So long as the emphasis is on a reactionary approach to child abuse without ownership at the individual and community level to prevent crimes against children, the menace of child sexual abuse will continue to shatter innocent dreams. Let us pledge to break the silence around all forms of child abuse and awaken our moral consciousness until our land is a safe space for all children.
Mashal Arbab is a Consultant at the Ministry of Human Rights in Islamabad. The views in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.