How to prevent child abuse?

Updated March 21, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

FOR five months, the country’s leading psychiatrists have been knocking at the doors of authority to take concrete steps to prevent the rape and murder of small children, instead of treating these incidents as law and order cases only. So far it has been in vain.

The campaign started when the Pakistan Association for Mental Health (PAMH), a body well known for its service to public causes, decided to concentrate on the sexual abuse of children while observing World Mental Health Day last October. WHO had chosen ‘young people and mental health in a changing world’ as the theme for the annual day in 2018.

The reason for the PAMH decision was that for nine months the whole nation had been gripped by anger and shame at the abduction, rape and murder of seven-year-old Zainab in Kasur. The case had been making headlines almost every day. The culprit, who had raped and killed several other little girls, was going to be hanged within a few days. The entire country was calling for the protection of small children.

Members of the PAMH were also alarmed at the fact that the storm generated by the Zainab case had not led to any abatement of child abuse incidents. Sahil, an NGO specialising in this field, had said that 2,332 cases had been reported during the first half of 2018 in Punjab alone, that more than 12 children were abused every day, and that the End of Childhood Index ranked Pakistan at number 149 out of 174 countries.

Efforts to convince the government to focus on child sexual abuse have so far been in vain.

There were several other cases in which small girls had met Zainab’s fate. Safia, 6, and Shamsa, 8, were raped and killed. Sitara, 6, disappeared while returning from her school. Her family went to the police station around 5pm but could not find the station boss till 9pm, and only then was a complaint registered. The next morning, the police reported the discovery of a child’s body behind a bush; it was identified as Sitara’s by her parents.

A PAMH seminar proposed several measures to streamline investigation and trial procedures in child abuse cases, but it attached greater importance to the prevention of child abuse than the treatment of the symptoms. It proposed a wide-ranging media campaign to sensitise the community to children’s vulnerabilities and risk factors, and identify the various forms of their physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect. Since these steps could not ensure effective protection of children, the PAMH, backed by leading psychiatrists and psychologists, suggested enabling children and adolescents to protect themselves through the teaching of ‘health and hygiene’ at the primary and secondary levels.

In November 2018, on behalf of psychiatrists and psychologists who had taken part in the deliberations on child abuse, professor emeritus Haroon Ahmed wrote to Prime Minister Imran Khan, sending a copy to Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, to convey the mental health professionals’ concern with regard to the protection of children from violence and abuse, including physical and sexual abuse, kidnapping, rape and murder.

The signatories argued that “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 in strategies to protect themselves. At the same time, it is equally important to sensitise 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.”

To achieve the objective stated here, the group strongly recommended the introduction of a life-skills curriculum in the educational system that would focus on health, hygiene and emotional development. In February 2019, the federal education minister was again requested to include Life-Skills-Based Education (LSBE) in the new education policy. These requests remain unanswered to this day.

A letter to the adviser to the Sindh chief minister did result in a request to the PAMH to give an idea of LSBE. The association suggested the following five-chapter course: concept of health and illness; anatomy and physiology; drugs and dangerous behaviour; the good and the bad touch; and a few life-skills-based activities. The association has learnt that the Sindh government has adopted a programme to train teachers in an LSBE course but there is no evidence of the requisite political will and allocation of resources.

Violence against children and adolescents — rape, any other form of torture, any form of physical, mental or emotional violence, and murder — is undoubtedly one of the greatest threats to the health of the next generation, indeed, to Pakistan’s future. It is, therefore, essential that any suggestion or proposal relating to the education of children that purports to overcome this threat be considered by all provincial governments, as education is a provincial subject, as well as by the federal government which retains the power to devise a uniform syllabus.

If the indifference to the proposals shown by mental health professionals stems from the government’s irremediable intolerance of civil society and whatever it might suggest, it could lead to a disaster neither the state nor society can afford. No government in the world claims a monopoly over wisdom, and states that ignore the pool of talent outside the political and bureaucratic corridors of power deny themselves alternative routes to salvation.

It is, however, possible that the federal government possesses a better method of protecting children against violence or that the PAMH proposal needs to be streamlined one way or another. But this only underlines the need for a thorough discussion between mental health experts and the federal/provincial authorities, which is not a bad idea in a democratic set-up. Any thoughtless dismissal of non-official proposals for child protection will invite the state’s summary indictment for having abandoned its young ones — in fact, for undermining the people’s future altogether.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2019