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Child Abuse: We Need To Move Beyond Public Outrage And End The Silence Within Families

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“Child abuse cases need to be taken as mission and reforms need to start from Masjid and Maktab”, were the remarks of a speaker in a consultative meeting of legislators and high tier officials in KP Assembly.

It was suggested that the elected representatives need to go beyond the closed door meetings for child rights protection. Perhaps, a door to door campaign similar to the election campaign can help in raising awareness among masses. Meanwhile, I was recalling the cases and the viral videos in recent past where the perpetrators were from masjid and maktab, if not all but most of them.

After Zainab Ansari case and conviction of the culprit, it was assumed that the conviction will work as a deterrent. Unfortunately, the cases kept on rising and as per a report by the NGO Sahil, the number of child rape cases saw significant increase in the first half of 2020 with maximum cases in Punjab 57%, 32% in Sindh, 6% in KP, 22 in Balochistan, 35 in Islamabad and 10 in Azad Kashmir. The victims included 785 girls and 704 boys and mostly the abusers were acquaintances.

It is pertinent that these are the cases being reported and there must be many unreported, pushed under carpet due to the stigma attached. Child abuse is a universal phenomenon around the globe, however a recent report by the Economist Intelligence unit and World Childhood Foundation, among the 40 listed countries, UK is the safest and Pakistan is the least safe (January 2019). Why are we still facing insecurity for our boys and girls in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan despite the presence of child protection centers, commissions, laws, child rights organizations, help lines and apps? Do the victims really have the information about these mechanisms or they are just restricted to the papers and indoor meetings? Various factors contribute to the growing number of cases and one of the major factors is the absence of a holistic approach to handle the menace.

Regardless of gender, both young boys and girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse. When the victim is a female child, parents often force them to stay quiet to preserve the “honour” of the family. In either case, they are silenced and shamed for circumstances way beyond their control. When male children are sexually abused, confiding in someone becomes a bigger challenge for them because of the norms that society has set about masculinity. As a result, if male children talk about their abuse, they are mocked for being weak and unmanly – an attitude that often silences them forever. The most common factor that discourages survivors to talk about abuse, however, is ignorance on part of the parents or primary caregivers. Child sexual abuse is part of the continuum of sexual violence that targets women and sexual minorities.

Paradoxically, we live in a society where cases of child abuse elicit public outrage, while at the same time the institution of the family works to silence victims of abusers who operate in close quarters. The problem is multifarious. Due to taboos attached to it, child abuse is one of the most complex phenomena plaguing the society for decades. Its complexity is overshadowed by the lack of acknowledgement and exploration in the many facets of child abuse prevailing in the country. Abuse is deemed as a domestic affair in most cases. The only time the police does act is when cases of extreme violence and cruelty are brought forth especially in media spotlight. Additionally, the media too reports cases that create frenzy among the masses.

Covered by mostly the same legal frameworks, child prostitution- another form of child abuse- has other legal protection schemes covering it. This entails the Provincial Suppression of Prostitution Ordinance of 1961. It is a comprehensive legislation related to prostitution. “This law makes it illegal to keep a brothel; to attract attention by words, gestures, willful and indecent exposure of the body for the purpose of prostitution of a girl under 16 years of age; to procure, entice or lead away, or attempt to do so, any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution; to bring, or attempt to bring, into a province any woman or girl with a view to luring her to become a prostitute; and to keep or detain any woman or girl against her will, at any place, with intent to force her to have sexual intercourse with any man other than her lawful husband”. The provisions included in the Zina Ordinance, the Pakistan Penal Code and the Suppression of Prostitution Ordinance give a quite complex legal framework for the protection of children against sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

In order to establish an early warning and recovery system, Zainab Alert, Recovery and Response Act 2020 has been passed by the National Assembly on January 10, 2020. Poignantly, the law was passed on the second death anniversary of the brutal murder of Zainab Ansari, a case that captured the imagination of the public. Stories of child abuse, exploitation and abduction weigh heavy on our collective consciousness.

There has been a slew of legislation in recent years guaranteeing legal protections to children and augmenting the powers of the state to punish perpetrators, including the ICT Child Protection Act 2018 and Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act 2016 which amended various sections of the Pakistan Penal Code to legislate for the criminalization of exposure of seduction to a child (Section 292A), child pornography (Section 292B), the offence of cruelty to a child (Section 328B) and offence of sexual abuse with child (Section 377A).The Act establishes the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency of Missing and Abducted Children (ZARRA) and a helpline for reporting of cases. These institutions will vest with the National Commission on the Rights of the Child established under the National Commission on the Rights of the Child Act, which was passed in 2015, which is yet to be made functional. The biggest challenge for the Zainab Alert Act will be navigating the implementation mechanism consisting of the provincial and federal governments as well as coordinating with police stations. Since the Eighteenth Amendment, child protection is now a provincial subject, which means that each province can enact their own laws on the subject or adopt the Zainab Alert Act by passing it through the respective provincial assemblies.

After deliberations in the lower house of the parliament and suggestions from the Council of Islamic Ideology, the bill made it to the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights late-January 2020. The panel decided to incorporate jurisdiction of anti-terrorism courts to implement across the country and not just the Islamabad Capital Territory as proposed by the bill. Also, although Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989, the protection of the rights is yet a dream. The fate of the National Commission on Rights of Children (NCRC) has been in limbo since the bill was first introduced in 2001.

The Ministry of Social Welfare had initiated a number of legislatures including National Commission on the Rights of Children Bill 2009, Child Protection Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2009, Charter of Child Rights Bill 2009, Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill 2010 and the Child Marriages Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2009. But the promulgation of the 18th Amendment deferred the bills. The NCRC was eventually taken up and passed by the National Assembly in 2015 and the Senate in 2017. Despite the passage of more than two years, the commission is yet to see light of the day. The ZARR Act 2020 can be applicable nation-wide only if the provinces empower the federation through a resolution under Article 144 of the Constitution. Otherwise, a federal law will not be applicable in provincial territories. If the Centre and the provinces reach an understanding on the matter, a common alert system with a nation-wide helpline and database could ensure swift response and recovery of a missing child. An alert system can only be meaningful if the capacity and reach is nation-wide

Along with the government’s efforts to minimize incidents, a vital role is to be played by media in creating awareness, as having an open discussion with children about sexual violence remains taboo in Pakistani households – an attitude that significantly adds to the problem. Educational institutions, schools should arrange workshops to teach both teachers and parents about child sexual abuse. The age defining a child should be brought up to 18 years; indeed, protection against sexual violence has to be guaranteed to all children up to 18 years of age.

Secondly, an equal legal treatment for everybody should be ensured, in particular the protection of female children has to be ameliorated (as for the zina crimes, female victims should no longer be punishable for an abuse they suffered). Finally, stricter punishment against perpetrator should be clearly defined in respective law dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation of children, but restraining from legalizing torture. In conclusion, in addition to legislative and societal reforms, it is extremely important to help children to become more aware of their right to safety and to educate them on strategies to protect themselves. At the same time, it is equally important to sensitize parents and teachers and help them in not only communicating with children in ways that encourage trust and openness but also in being able to respond appropriately if a child were to share an experience of being abused. The introduction of a life-skills curriculum in the educational system that would focus on health, hygiene and emotional development is recommended.

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Naya Daur