Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act — A Step In The Right Direction
On 19th March, the President of Pakistan signed into effect the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill 2020, which is aimed at raising alarm and aiding in response and recovery of missing or abducted children. The Act applies in the entire country with an overriding effect except on the Juvenile Justice System Act 2018 and Anti-Terrorism Act 1997.
The act is named after Zainab, a seven-year-old girl, who was kidnapped from her home in Kasur, then raped and killed. Zainab lost her life due to negligence, callousness, incompetence and connivance of Kasur police in addition to the Punjab government. Regrettably, the city has been allowed to become a hub for crimes related to child molestation.
Child abuse and pedophilia is unfortunately rampant in Pakistan. The Zainab case (2018) and the Kasur child abuse scandal (2015) are just two notorious incidents which present a very critical picture of the horror that is plaguing our society. Pedophilia in Pakistan can also be dated back to the horrific period of Javed Iqbal, a serial killer from Lahore who trapped about a 100 young boys and killed them. But even before Javed Iqbal, there may have been an untold number of child abuse cases occurring throughout the country.
Unfortunately, it is hard to verify how many such cases occurred in the days before modern technology and communications.
Child abuse occurs in many ways. There are often chances that the perpetrator might be a family member and the lack of communication between parents and their children might not allow the perpetrators to be revealed. This blind trust in family members may contribute to occurrences. Although their crimes cannot be justified, they should be studied and circumstance surrounding offenses investigated, so that future abuse can be prevented. The motive for child abuse can vary; the abuser might be a victim of child abuse themselves and act in this manner in order to try to cope with his past trauma. Or the perpetrator might be psychologically disturbed, even mentally challenged. In such a conservative society, lack of sex education, access to pornographic content, drugs and being affected by extreme forms of popular culture can exacerbate the abovementioned problems and warp a person’s expectations and ideals of healthy relationships, leading to such acts.
Children who are victims of this menace lead a difficult life as they have to deal with this trauma for the rest of their lives. To deal with this dismay that has grasped our society, it is important to take measures from a grass roots level. Protection services need to be improved and the criminal justice system has to be reformed. Appropriate and proper training should be provided to police, doctors, media and those dealing with this subject in order to provide a protective environment for children in Pakistani society. Parents need to educate their children on what is a healthy and safe form of contact. Last but not least, sex education should be mandatory in the Pakistani education system and taboos regarding it should be erased so our children can live in a safer environment.
According to the report ‘Cruel Number 2019’ by Sahil, an NGO working for a safe environment for children and tackling child abuse, an average of 8 children was sexually abused each day in the year 2019. Demarcation by gender shows that out of the total 2846 cases of child abuse, 54 percent victims were girls and 46 percent were boys. A total 3722 abusers were identified in which 2222 were the acquaintances of the victims.
Sahil’s ‘Cruel Numbers 2019’ is data on cases reported in 84 newspapers during 2019. However, it is likely that there are a large number of cases which go unreported or are not often highlighted by the media. Even if this data is incomplete, it is still a wakeup call for authorities to act promptly.
Article 25 of The Constitution of Pakistan states, ‘All citizens are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection before the law; nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the protection of women and children’. The need for this specific legislation is also reflected in Article 11, 19, 34, 35 and 36 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by Pakistan almost 30 years ago.
Additionally, Pakistan ratified The Optional Protocol to the UNCRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography in 2011. Therefore, passage of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act, 2020, is also a proud act in compliance with international commitments.
The law will help to provide a speedy system for alerts, responses, recoveries, investigations, trails and rehabilitation of missing, abducted, sexually abused or victims of child rape, and to prevent and curb criminal activities against them. According to the provision a child is defined as a person who is under eighteen years of age.
The Act has recommended the establishment of Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA), headed by a Director-General who would be appointed by the Prime Minister. The management staff of ZARRA should be suitably equipped with skills of managing databases, conducting planning and monitoring of programs, analyzing data, preparing reports and coordinating with all other officers. They should also be knowledgeable about child rights, police investigations, legal proceedings, and trauma-victim relations.
It has also been suggested that ZARRA work closely with the 1099 helpline or such other helplines operating under the mandate of the Division concerned. In this regard, the helpline shall forward relevant complaints, which shall be acted upon in partnership between ZARRA and the National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) established under the National Commission on the Rights of Child Act, 2017. The law will also ensure efficiency and cohesion in the workings of the new agencies and institutions established for the protection of children and already existing mechanisms within this field.
Furthermore, the law lays out action against police officials who cause unnecessary delay in investigating such cases. The local police and concerned law enforcement agencies shall on receipt of information take immediate action and launch investigation, search, rescue and recovery operations. Police will be bound to register an FIR within two hours of a child being reported missing by their parents. It will inform ZARRA immediately and keep providing latest status of the case and all available details on daily basis. The police officer shall ensure that the biographical information of the child in Schedule A of this Act is made part of the complaint. Police officials failing to comply with their duties will be punished with imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of rupees one hundred thousand.
Upon receiving information that a child is missing, ‘the officer in-charge of the police station will reduce the same into writing in the same manner as prescribed for a cognizable offence under Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure’, and will be mandated to start an investigation of the case and recover the missing child. ZARRA shall, wherever required, coordinate the efforts of the concerned police stations and other federal and provincial agencies, authorities or departments. In case ZARRA office receives a direct complaint of a missing or abducted child, it shall coordinate immediately with local police station and other ZARRA offices.
According to the law, special courts will be bound to pass judgement on cases of sexual abuse, rape, kidnapping and murder involving children within three months. The sentence handed down to child sexual abusers would be under the relevant sections of the Pakistan Penal Code.
The time is ripe for a child protection intervention so that no child in the country is robbed of his/her childhood, no child becomes a news headline, no child dies alone and afraid, no child has to be found in heap of the trash, no child’s parents have to beg for justice and no community has to experience the horror of child abuse. ZARRA must be established swiftly, so that the rules may be formalized within six months in consultation with Federal Minister for Human Rights to carry out its purpose to protect children in Pakistan.