July 07, 2019


Illustration: Nashmia Shah
Illustration: Nashmia Shah

A middle-class woman in her early 40s sits in front of me with her 16-year-old daughter. Their heads completely covered, not a single strand of hair slips outside their tightly wrapped scarves. They wear full-sleeves and their attire has nothing that can remotely be labelled as ‘provocative’, which is the first thing pointed out by our society for a person who has been sexually abused.

In this case, the perpetrator was the girl’s 50-year-old father, the woman’s husband of 20 years or more. “Where do I take my daughter? I ignored his behaviour for more than a decade but can’t take it anymore,” she asks me earnestly, her counsellor for the case.

A paediatrician friend of mine working at one of the largest hospitals in the country recounts a similar story. A five-month-old girl was brought to her office by her mother who suspected the child was being sexually abused by her father. She (the paediatrician) had the same query: “Where do I send the mother and the child.”

Lack of state support for victims of abuse is a major barrier to finding workable solutions to their situation

Where do the victims go if they are brave enough to report, in the face of stifling societal norms? How do they bring their cases to notice? What authority provides them a safe home? After the Zainab incident last year, the debates around this issue have been stronger than ever before but sadly that is all that it has been. While a number of organisations are working on awareness and outreach, in the absence of functional laws and a clear-cut strategy to deal with these cases, any work on the issue is merely noise: all talk and no action.

Political parties seem to be playing politics over basic human rights’ bills. Shireen Mazari, Minister for Human Rights, recently tweeted that a sub-committee formed by Bilawal Bhutto and “Headed by a PPP MNA deliberately refused to decide on the Zainab Alert Bill despite being told they could add amends to it.” Whether true or not it shows how political rhetoric trumps actual action.

According to information shared at a recent seminar in Islamabad on ‘Legislative Development and State of Child Rights in Pakistan’ organised by the Child Rights Movement (CRM) Pakistan — a coalition of more than 500 NGOs and concerned individuals working for the promotion and protection of child rights in Pakistan — around 10 children are abused daily in the country. All existing literature, facts and figures on the topic are either funded by a donor agency or NGOs and the state does not seem to take any responsibility even for data collection, which is the first step in creating a workable solution to any problem.

The federal and provincial bureaucracy makes any concerned citizen go around in mere circles with their handling tactics. The bureaucracy does not seem willing to share tasks and information. Helplines, shelters and the police merely pass on the buck from one department to another and refuse to take responsibility for any action. There is no coordination between hospitals, child welfare departments, legislative bodies, police, first aid, support, etc.

Case in point: an anti-beggary drive was initiated in Karachi last year. While a helpline has been set up especially for the purpose and beggars with young children are routinely picked up by local authorities, they are merely set free after spending a few hours in the lock-up. The justification that, in the absence of any state or other shelters, where are these people to be sent?

The question remains, in the absence of a referral pathway for exploitation and abuse, where should the people go? Reportedly, a suggestion was made to an ex-social welfare secretary in Sindh to make a law for doctors to make it mandatory to report cases of abuses. His response: “Why don’t you have it written down and I will have it implemented.” The official apathy is clear. The provincial assembly passed The Sindh Child Protection Bill in 2011, on the basis of which the Sindh Child Protection Agency was notified in 2014. The funds for the agency were allocated in the 2016-17 budget, but the institution is yet to start operations.

The Sindh government seems least interested in doing anything for child protection and seems to be creating barriers for those who are showing some efforts in this regard. The proposed authority (Sindh Child Protection Agency) was responsible for monitoring and controlling all child-related issues in Sindh, including sexual and physical abuse and human trafficking. The bill was converted into a law after approval from the then governor on June 9, 2011, but the notification from the government came as late as November 21, 2014. It took another year-and-a-half before the government approved the budget for the project. However, implementation of the law is non-existent.

Furthermore, the authority was initially planned as an autonomous body, but its control was handed over to the Sindh Social Welfare Department, that can best be described as a rudimentary body spending money merely on personal privileges for its officials. According to the staff working in different districts of the social welfare department, following the floods in 2010, the government established various child protection centres throughout the province with the support of the Unicef. However, the makeshift centres were closed after suspension of aid from Unicef, clearly underlining the fact that projects with foreign aid hardly meet with success.

Community-based child protection networks act as mediators between society and those in positions of authority, such as the police, legal and medical departments, etc. and a state-run system. The Western model of foster parenting, though it comes with its own set of problems, is not possible without governmental support. The private sector is doing more than its share of investing in social causes through self-funded organisations but, without governmental patronage, the welfare of the citizens of Pakistan and its children is in the doldrums, without any respite in sight.

The documentary Pakistan’s Hidden Shame highlighted the ordeal of young boys being abused by paedophiles. In the documentary released a few years ago, now PM Imran Khan agrees that child sexual abuse is common and we, as a society, have failed to protect our children. In office, he talks about making Pakistan a welfare state akin to riyasat-i-Madina, but thousands still fall victim to ineptitude in various forms on a daily basis in our nuclear state.

According to a report published in The Guardian last year, “At least 90 percent of all working children in Kasur under the age of 14 experience sexual harassment or other forms of exploitation. Few government institutions seem to address the issue. Police in Kasur characterise it as a cultural problem.”

According to Unicef, “Children in Pakistan are vulnerable to many forms of violence (physical, psychological, sexual) and exploitation, including economic exploitation and child trafficking. Nearly 30 years after Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), no public-coordinated child protection case management and referral system, as aligned with international standards, has been established.” The dire need to collaborate and coordinate with multiple agencies at the forefront of policy-making should be of utmost priority, but we have no solutions to offer.

“Sleep with your daughter, lock the room at night, don’t leave her alone with the father at home,” are some of the flimsy solutions I can offer the mother of a young child who is being repeatedly abused by her father for over 10 years. These tactics, however minor, do work to an extent, but perpetrators lash out viciously in the face of the minimum resistance shown. They threaten physical intimidation, cutting off financial support and cause severe emotional stress. Because of the lack of economic autonomy, and a non-existent social support system, the victim is helpless to move out from under the same roof where the abominable abuse is taking place. In many cases, there is no extended family support and, because of community ostracisation, the reasons for wanting to end a marriage or move out of a home, no matter how volatile, cannot be shared with others, leaving victims with little or no choice.

As counsellors, doctors and support-providers, we can only apply a band-aid on gaping emotional and physical wounds, while there is a lot to be done to address the issues at hand. The feelings of frustration, anger and helplessness are insurmountable, with the poor implementation of existing child protection laws being at the forefront of the issue. As citizens, our options to act seem limited and governmental support stands like an unapproachable fortress with barbed barriers for its citizens.

The writer is a counsellor and an art therapy practitioner

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2019