In his very first address to the nation, Prime Minister Imran Khan talked about the issue of children’s rights, abuse and neglect. This was the first time that concern was shown at the state level on the plight of children in Pakistan for an issue that remains an unfinished agenda in Pakistan to this date.
Child protection is a broad term that implies protection of children from physical, mental, emotional harm and ensures their safety from actions and situations that interfere with healthy development. It also refers to preventing and responding to violence, exploitation and abuse against children.
Because of the complexity of its nature a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral approach is needed. Development of legislation and policies and strict enactment of laws related to child protection is imperative.
Every new case of child abuse highlighted in the media causes outrage, and yet we fail to move towards a system-based approach which can guarantee safety for all of Pakistan’s children
According to Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an individual up to the age of 18 years is considered a child. In the past few years, there has been an upsurge in the child abuse cases reported in Pakistani media. This may be due to the fact that media is now more sensitised toward the issue, though the element of sensationalism is still there. Although no national database is available, according to Sahil — a non-profit organisation working for child protection — more than 3,500 cases of child abuse were reported in the year 2018.
Among the cases reported, more than 1,000 cases were of rape and sodomy. The organisation also reported a nine percent increase in reported cases of murder after sexual abuse. Only 72 percent of cases were registered with the police and, in almost 100 instances, the police refused to register the case.
On the one hand, parents have little faith in law enforcement agencies, while those who do muster the courage to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) are discouraged by the police or entangled in the rigmarole of lodging a FIR. Thus precious time is lost. Without an FIR, the police surgeon refuses to examine the victim. In case of children, not only is crucial evidence (DNA, semen analysis, etc.) lost, but physical healing is rapid and the signs of physical violence, if any, disappear rapidly, thus making it impossible for the examining doctor to reach a correct diagnosis.
The Indian Supreme Court has made it mandatory for an FIR to be lodged in every suspected case of missing or abducted child and their subsequent subjection to abuse. It is mandatory for police stations across India to register missing complaints of minors and appoint a special police officer to handle complaints of juveniles. Such police personnel are to be stationed at every police station in plain clothes. Pakistan needs to bring immediate changes in the policies and their strict implementation on similar lines.
For a long time, there was no law to protect children from abuse. Ironically, civil society recognised the rights of children 67 years after the rights of animals were recognised. Member countries of the UN deliberated for 10 years before submitting the draft of the Conventions for the Rights of Children for ratification in 1990. Pakistan is one of the signatories.
The first legislation against child abuse in the world dates back to 1874. It was Mary Ellen Wilson whose case first drew the attention of the world and finally led to enacting a legislation against child abuse. It prompted humanitarian and child rights activists to prevent abuse and protect its victims.
Wilson was a 10-year-old girl who lived in Manhattan, NY. She was subjected to severe beating and cruelty by her adoptive parents. At that time, believing in the metaphor “spare the rod and spoil the child”, parents, teachers and caretakers routinely subjected children to severe physical punishments. Unable to bear witness to the cruelty, Wilson’s neighbours took action.
When the case was brought to the attention of the law enforcement agency, they realised that there was no law to protect children from physical abuse from their parents/caretakers. So, in 1874, the case was finally registered under the act of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and statutes against cruelty to animals were invoked to remove Wilson from her home.
Wilson testified in court, and the adoptive parent was sentenced to jail for one year. Initially, the child was placed in a juvenile home but later she was adopted by a kind-hearted family. In the same year, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded, followed by the formation of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in the UK. It was after Henry Kempe, a paediatrician who first recognised child abuse, described “the battered child syndrome” in 1962, that child protection slowly began to gather momentum.
CHILD PROTECTION IN THE US AND UK
In developed nations, the laws related to children are continually amended by new legislation. In the UK, there is no single piece of legislation that covers child protection. The legislation covering child protection is divided into two categories — civil and criminal law. Civil law has two components — public law, which deals with policies to deal with child abuse cases, and private law, that is concerned more with family and domestic issues, such as child custody. In the UK, the current child protection system is based on the Children Act 1989, which is a very comprehensive law. It defines “harm” as ill treatment, impairment of health or development. Guidance documents exist for reporting, and to assist professionals to help children who are identified to be at risk and protect them by working with other identified bodies (professionals such as doctors, lawyers, paramedics who deal with children and child rights activists lobby). While it is mandatory for local authorities to investigate a reported case of child abuse, laws on mandatory reporting do not exist. However, in Northern Ireland it is mandatory to report a case of child abuse to the police.
The US is still not a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child but it has child abuse laws at the federal, state and local levels. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was passed in 1974 and reauthorised in 2010. US federal laws provide standards and guidelines, although most cases of child abuse are governed by state laws. It is mandatory to report cases of child abuse and neglect in all states, and statutes of limitations (deadlines for the lawsuits) for criminals and civil prosecution are ensured. Mandatory laws require that people who work closely with children alert the police or appropriate authorities if they suspect abuse of a child. There are penalties for failing to report a case of child abuse.
SITUATION IN PAKISTAN
Pakistan has, both nationally and internationally, committed towards fully protecting the rights of its children. It ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1990, which is the most comprehensive document protecting all fundamental rights of children. The Constitution of Pakistan lays out a range of rights regarding children. The first goal of National Vision 2025 is “Putting People First, Development Human and Social Capital.” This can be best achieved by ensuring empowerment and human resource development processes, starting at birth and nurtured through childhood and adolescence. The state bears the primary responsibility to create a preventive and protective environment for children through legislation, policymaking and institutional reform.
It is now over a quarter of century that Pakistan signed the CRC, according to which the state has to develop a child protection system to ensure optimum child development and protection.
NATIONAL LAWS ON CHILDREN’S RIGHTS
At the time of ratification of the CRC, Paksitan made a commitment that the CRC shall be interpreted according to the principles of Islamic laws and values, but the conventions are not enforceable in Pakistan until there is enabling legislation making them a law of the land. Pakistan has yet to introduce any such law with regard to the CRC; this means that the convention cannot be directly applied in the courts.
Although Pakistan’s constitution is silent about the rights of children, certain articles do address children; for example, Article 11(3) states that “no child below the age of 14 years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment,” and Article 25(3) and Article 26(3) state that nothing “shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the protection of women and children.” Similarly, Article 35 sets special protection for the institution of marriage, the family, the mother and the child and Article 37 establishes a duty not to employ children and women in vocations unsuited to their age or sex, and for maternity benefits for women in employment.”
A number of legislations in Pakistan, however, relate to children’s rights, such as Child Protection (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill, 2009; National Commission on the Rights of Children Bill, 2009; The Child Marriages Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2009; Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000; Law on Honour Killing, 2006; The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act, 2004; The NWFP Child Welfare and Protection Bill, 2000; Domestic Violence against Women and Children (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2009, etc.
Sindh remains ahead of other provinces when it comes to introducing and adopting child protection legislation. It is the only province that has enforced legislation on prohibition of child marriage. Sindh has also passed a law on corporal punishment. A Child Protection Authority has also been constituted in the province to take steps for necessary intervention in different areas. The province has taken the lead to adopt a law on domestic violence that protects both women and children. However, the legislations passed are yet to be translated into action. Children, at large, continue to be victims of violence and neglect in the province.
Pakistan’s commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development call for an end to all forms of violence against children, particularly child labour, abuse and marriages.
We need to identify gaps and formulate strategies at national and provincial level. Up till now, the response of the individual and society towards the issue of child protection is dismal. As a nation, our response is more of a knee-jerk reaction. Whenever a case of child abuse is reported — rather highlighted in the media — there is an uproar and the entire society joins in, but eventually the furore subsides until another case is reported. We need to adopt a system-based approach instead, which can guarantee child safety. Children need a strong child protection system. This is particularly important to the most vulnerable children, since they are usually more at risk of abuse, exploitation or neglect. The main aims of a system-based approach should be to ensure and strengthen a protective environment around children and to strengthen children themselves, in order to ensure their well-being. As a nation which has ratified the CRC, we are bound to fulfil the rights of children and to protect them.
A systematic approach will address issues in a comprehensive and sustainable manner, affirm the role of parents/caregivers as having the primary responsibility for care and protection of children, and assign the responsibility of states to guarantee the protection of children,
Core parenting attitudes and practices need to be studied further. It has been observed in a number of reported cases that often parents, intentionally or unintentionally, adopt a carefree attitude with children, ignoring their safety and vulnerability to abuse. They not only fail to grow their knowledge about abuse and neglect but, more often, ignore the necessity to educate their children about self-protection.
The Child Protection Act enacted in 2011 is still not active at the provincial level. The act requires a child protection committee and Child Protection Unit (CPU) to be constituted at district level, creating linkages between referral partners and child protection outreach programmes. These institutional delivery issues are still unsolved.
When it comes to child labour legislation, there is inconsistency in the minimum age. According to the labour act, the ‘compulsory age’ is above 14, but Article 38 does not include domestic child labour. Child labour is still a non-cognisable offence. It needs to be made a cognisant offence. Bonded labour is a punishable offence, like slavery and pornography (Sindh Bonded Labour Abolition Act of 2015).
As far as the Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Act 2013 is concerned, it is enacted in educational institutional set ups, but is silent regarding workplace corporal punishment. ‘Disciplining act’ at school level needs further defining. Cruelty to child health is a cognisable offence but corporal punishment law is still not in criminal jurisdiction.
It is thus imperative to set up a child protection system with a well-defined structure and functions, and to build stakeholders’ capacity, among other components that aim towards a set of child protection goals.
The system should operate at multiple levels, involving both formal and non-formal sectors. In order to achieve effective results, provincial level advocacy and technical assistance is needed at each step. At the same time, it is necessary to identify the barriers — economic, social and political — and their tangible solutions. Research and fact-finding exercises should be part of defining the child protection system.
The writer is Chairperson, Child Abuse Prevention Society, Prof of Paediatrics and ex-head of department of paediatrics at Dow Medical College/DUHS
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2019