ALL over the world, child sexual abuse is an offence. If a child is raped, a report is made to the state. The latter ensures not only that the child receives physical and mental treatment, but also that the environment he/she is returning to is safe. The perpetrator, more often than not, receives appropriate punishment.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in Pakistan even though it is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We are least interested in safeguarding the rights of our children, and child protection services are virtually non-existent here. That said, child protection legislation does exist in Pakistan. In fact, with some amendments to the Sindh Child Protection Act, 2011, and incorporation of the missing child alert system (which has been tabled in the National Assembly as a separate bill) Sindh can expect to have a reasonable child protection system.
Sindh has the laws but not the will to protect its children.
The problem is the will, or lack thereof, to implement this law. The Sindh Child Protection Authority and the Sindh Child Protection Commission lie dormant. According to the Sindh Social Welfare Department, each of Sindh’s 29 districts has a Child Protection Unit. The reality is that these units are nonfunctional. A child protection officer is supposed to be the point of liaison between the departments of child protection, police and the law. However, here there is no coordination between these departments; each department handles cases of child abuse independently. Ideally, a child protection officer, a police officer and a magistrate should be sitting at the Child Protection Unit so that every case is solved efficiently. The biggest deficiency is the lack of government shelters in Sindh; without these no child protection service can survive.
In 2011, the health ministry passed an order for all government hospitals to set up child protection committees. The purpose other than prevention and identification of child abuse was to have better coordination with the government. However, this was only partially implemented for a short period. This order should be reinforced not only in public but also private hospitals. Child protection committees should be established in schools, madressahs and orphanages. This would strengthen the partnership between the child protection units and institutions which deal with children.
According to recent data from the NGO Sahil, more than 10 children are abused every day in Pakistan. This is based on data collected from reported cases in newspapers and online, as well as cases received at their offices. However, as is the situation with other reported crimes, this is grossly underestimated. Most child abuse cases that come to hospitals go unreported because parents are unwilling to register an FIR. Until and unless a law is passed which makes it mandatory for doctors, teachers and other professionals who take care of children to report cases of suspected child abuse, we will not be able to obtain accurate data. A large number of children are not even brought to a medical facility out of fear of stigmatisation. In addition, there are pockets in the country where child sexual abuse occurs in plain sight, yet the bystanders prefer to keep silent.
The dismal state of affairs leads us to question the direction of our country. The only solution is to keep pushing the government to pay attention to the future of Pakistan. Presently, however, to curb this unfortunate condition we must take preventative measures. As a paediatrician, I urge parents to take this responsibility and be on guard for the sake of their children and others.
Some important advice for parents is: talk to your child about sexual abuse. If you are not sure about how to go about this, take help from your paediatrician/ doctor. Teach your child which parts of the body are private. Let them know their body belongs to them and to yell “NO” if someone threatens them sexually.
Make sure you know the adults and children your child spends time with. Most important to note is that in eight out of 10 reported cases of child abuse, the offender is someone the child knows. It could be someone as close as the father, sibling, grandparent, uncle or cousin of the child. Never leave small children alone with domestic staff. If, all of a sudden, your child does not want to see or greet an individual do not force them to do so and try to figure out the reason by communicating with the child. Never send children alone to the market and other public places.
And lastly, listen to your child when he/ she is trying to tell you about an incident. Do not silence them by telling them to keep it a secret. Instead, let them know you trust them and will support them fully.
As parents and guardians, it is our responsibility to ensure that no one is allowed the opportunity to compromise the safety of our children, and to raise our voice against the inaction of the government.
The writer is a paediatrician.
Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2019