Child abuse, particularly sexual violence, is one of the most pressing social issues facing our nation. Such crimes are tragic reminders of the failure of the state, and call for a complete overhaul of our intent towards child protection.
The majority of the child abuse cases in Pakistan are registered under the Zina Ordinance, 1979, which prohibits all forms of illegal sexual intercourse including rape. The Punjab Suppression of Prostitution Ordinance, 1961, the Sindh Children Act, 1955, and the Punjab Children Ordinance, 1983, all cover some forms of child abuse.
In 1990, Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), committing itself to implement the convention’s provisions through harmonised policies, legislation and plans of action, and to report progress to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child every five years.
After revelations of a child pornography ring in Kasur in 2015, 20 people were arrested in connection with the criminal scandal. At the time, only rape and sodomy were punishable under the law. As a result, several new provisions were added to our legislature to strengthen our child protection framework.
Let little Zainab be the last child we fail as a state.
The first amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code in relation to child abuse in 2016 criminalised sexual assault against minors, child pornography and trafficking. Sexual assault is now punishable by up to seven years in prison (previously, only rape was criminalised), and child pornography (previously not included in the law) is punishable by seven years in prison and a fine of Rs700,000.
Prosecution for rape has also benefited from recent amendments. Sections 164(A) and 164(B), inserted into the Code of Criminal Procedure in 2016, enable authorities to obtain and use DNA evidence. Section 161(A) also guarantees a rape victim the right to legal representation.
Despite a complex framework, the legislative tools we have at our disposal have not been utilised effectively, and have thus far failed to deter perpetrators of violence against children. While further specialised legislation is needed, as the situation stands, our biggest failure in protecting our children is not lack of legislation but lack of its enforcement.
The depravity that leads to such crimes occurring, especially considering the circumstances of Zainab’s case, calls for further action. The preamble to the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, introduces the act “to provide for the prevention of terrorism, sectarian violence and for speedy trial of heinous offences”. Based on these goals, it is high time that rape and sexual violence against children were added to Section 6 of the ATA so that it may be prosecuted with the same vigilance given to perpetrators of acts of terror.
The DNA profile of all citizens should be included in the Nadra database.
It is also necessary to properly train judicial officials and law-enforcement agencies. According to Human Rights Watch, “Even a well-drafted law is unlikely to achieve its objectives in the absence of a trained and accountable police force, adequately staffed probation departments, judges that are familiar with the applicable domestic law and international standards, and facilities that are designed for the guidance and care of juvenile offenders.”
The juvenile justice system also requires attention.
The age defining a child should be brought up in accordance to what is prescribed internationally. Secondly, there should be equal treatment for children regardless of gender — as for zina crimes, female victims should no longer be punished for an abuse inflicted upon them. Thirdly, there should be stricter punishment against perpetrators of sexual violence against children. And, as per Article 39 of the UNCRC, the government should take all necessary measures to promote the psychological and physical recovery of child victims. Currently, rehabilitative measures are underdeveloped, if not non-existent. There is an urgent need to establish such facilities throughout the country.
There must be an overhaul of the system at every level so that the authorities are not only successful in recovering children, but also in catching and punishing culprits. The crimes against Zainab reflect the absolute failure of the police, expose the lack of foresight in our legislature, and have resulted in the public losing all faith in this government.
If we wait much longer to effect concrete change, we will also lose faith in ourselves. The fate of young Zainab, loving daughter, thoughtful sister, cherished granddaughter, passionate student — human being — should be etched in our collective conscience. Let her be the last child we fail as a state.
The writer is an advocate of the high court, practising in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2018