Child Rights In Pakistan: Reframing Policy And Practice

Child Rights In Pakistan: Reframing Policy And Practice
In Fall of 2020, Pakistan was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the fifth time with the support of one hundred sixty nine UN member states securing highest number of votes in that round. Consequently, the Government of Pakistan once again made voluntary pledges and commitments to promote and protect human rights and prevent human rights violations.

While celebrating the Universal Children Day this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the fundamental principles laid down in the Constitution of Pakistan, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. He spoke about the establishment of National Commission on the Rights of Children (NCRC), enactment of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act, 2020, the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018 and ICT Child Protection Act, 2020 as an indication of fulfilling this commitment.

However, the increasing number of child rights violations elucidates that Pakistan has been facing serious challenges to adhere to its commitments to protect the children and to bring perpetrators to justice. Considering Punjab, according to Sahil, a local NGO working for children’s rights, 57 per cent of all cases of child abuse were reported in the province of Punjab. The various complaints received from Punjab to National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) in the second half of the year reveal worrisome trends related to child rights, including but not limited to child sexual abuse, underage marriages and forced conversion, and child domestic labor. The complainants do not only ask for the immediate relief for the victims but also suggest the strong legislation and effective mechanism to stop violation of child rights.

For instance, in a complaint submitted to NCRC regarding the abduction and rape of two minor daughters of a power loom worker in district Faisalabad, the complainant asked for bringing perpetrators to justice with an exemplary punishment. Nevertheless, another complaint about shocking incidents of child sexual abuse in district Sargodha, uncovered a considerable number, at 21 children per month sexually abused in 2020. The complainants asked to craft a public awareness campaign in the district to sensitize the communities on the subject of child protection. Muhammad Zain-ul-Abidin from Criminology Department of University of Sargodha accentuates on engagement of academia to conduct academic researches on the subject of child abuse and neglect; deeply analyzing the root causes and formulation of policies against these causes.

During the NCRC’s visits to various districts of province Punjab to monitor the cases of child rights violations, it was discerned that significant rise in violence against children is due to weak legislation and fragile governance related to child issues. The lack of referral mechanism and absence of effective complaint system amplifies the vulnerabilities of the victimized children. Whether it is an attempted rape case of Zain-ul-Abdeen in Muzaffargarh or sexual abuse case of Sahil in Nankana Sahib, no counseling support was provided to these minors to cope with their trauma. Likewise, whether it is Mohan Das in Bahawalpur or Faraha Shaheen in Faisalabad, the statement was got recorded under section 164 in front of respective Magistrates without fulfilling the clear statutory requirements of law. Whether it is widely reported child domestic labor cases of Zahra Shah and Sadaf or unpublicized acid-throwing cases of minors Sabia and Bushra, the weak FIRs and insensitive attitude of law enforcing agencies towards children remained a key barricade in ensuring speedy justice. The passive role of communities further exposed the children to adversaries in all such cases. Thus, it requires strong legal and enforcement mechanisms if Pakistan is to fulfill its international obligations.

After passing of 18th Amendment, child-related matters are mostly a provincial subject. The enactment of legislation and implementation mechanisms also varies from province to province. While considering the context of province Punjab, some concrete measures are needed to be taken into consideration on war-footing by the provincial government to protect the children.

First, regarding the legislation, besides the harmonization of child age in all child-related laws and policies, specific amendments are needed in some existing laws. For instance, the amendments in Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children’s Act 2004 can make the law a custodian of all Child Protection issues in Punjab. It ranges from provision of services to children up to 18 years of age to dealing of permanent custody of the Child under Guardian & Wards Act in Punjab. The Law compels provisions to deal with youth offenders while it repealed “Youthful Offenders Ordinance 1983”. Regarding implementation, Bureau necessitates to work as Regulatory & Monitoring Authority, rather merely a service delivery institute.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 4, Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2014 needs to be notified and rules to be devised. The Punjab government also needs to introduce some legislation to ban corporal punishment in all settings. While setting the age of entering into labour force at 18 years can enhance the enrollment in schools. At last, procedures need to be introduced under The Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 to identify, report, recover and rehabilitate the child working below the statutory age set by this law. Unfortunately, not only the proper legislation on Child Domestic Labor is missing in the province but also Child Domestic Labour is not included in the Schedule of hazardous occupations in the Punjab Restriction of Employment Act, 2016.

The issues of forced conversion and forced/child marriages are rampant in the province. It is promising the government has tabled the Forced Conversion Bill, however, the Punjab Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2015 is also needed to be revised to make it non-discriminatory on the bases of sex regarding age like it is in province Sindh. The government did a phenomenal job of passing the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018 but the rules of business are still pending. The implementation of the Act is only possible by establishing Juvenile Courts and panels for free legal aid, notifying juvenile justice committees, strengthening Probation and Parole system for diversion, establishing Observation Homes and Juvenile Rehabilitation Centers.

Second, to fulfill the international obligations, the recommendations and observations made by the international treaty bodies need to be honored, including the harmonization of laws regarding the definition of child. A comprehensive Child Protection Policy should be introduced to provide proper guidelines to the legislatures for the promulgation of legislative reforms and to introduce the child protection systems at the provincial levels.

Third, a strong Referral Mechanism, unified helplines and coordination among the governmental and non-governmental stakeholders can handle complaints swiftly and effectively. Furthermore, development of data base for Child Rights Violations and aligning it with Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA) at Federal level can make the system more pragmatic.

Last but not least, a public awareness campaign for sensitization of government functionaries as well as communities is the need of the hour. Media, academia and the district Bar Associations could be activated for child rights and the provision of free legal aid through Bar Councils. Working together we can protect our children. However, no mandate can assure child protection without sufficient budget allocation. That is the most important challenge in the arena of promotion and protection of child rights in Pakistan.

The writer is a human rights activist and a leadership consultant. She is member of National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego, California.  She tweets @RubinaFBhatti