RISING reports of the police’s apparent failure to curb child abuse has resulted in a few officers’ suspension. Such gruesome acts expose not only the hollowness of the criminal justice system, but also society’s callous attitude. But will media frenzy or disciplinary measures help prevent or detect such crimes?
Articles 3 and 4 of the Police Order, 2002, mandate the police to protect children. Sub-sections 3(d), 4(a) and 4(s) of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police Act, 2017, clearly specify the force’s mandate to protect children. Section 13 of KPPA requires a functional human rights vigilance wing. Though police law provides an institutional edifice, without capacity building and a child abuse prevention strategy, they are liable to be influenced by media scrutiny. Thus, justice will neither be dispensed nor preventative measures taken.
The principal issue is that of reporting, specifically delays in reporting missing children, which affects police response. Furthermore, child sexual abuse inflicted by a family member is in itself a significant barrier for victims to access justice. We live in a society where fear and cultural taboos make it difficult to uncover cases of abuse. Only 38pc of child victims disclose that they have been abused. According to Professor Masud Ahmed Malik, “Of these, 40pc tell a close friend rather than an adult or authority. These friend-to-friend disclosures do not always result in reports.”
Even if the victim shares details of their abuse with a parent, there is no guarantee that the abuse will be reported. Parents’ access to the police station and their unwillingness to subject their children to the medico-legal process are also deterrents. Most police station staff are not well-trained in handling such complaints, thus increasing the family’s distress and tarnishing the force’s image. To minimise crime statistics, the staff often try to hoodwink the few complainants who do overcome their reluctance to report. Delays and onerous reporting procedures thus greatly benefit the perpetrators.
Every delay benefits perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
Target hardening might improve prevention, but it is not possible without community policing as well as a communications strategy geared towards parents and children. Children must be educated about their rights and how to minimise risk, and be made to feel that they can and should discuss these matters with their parents.
The NGO Sahil compiled 3,832 child abuse cases in Pakistan from newspaper reports in 2018; an 11 per cent increase in reported cases from 2017. Of these, 63pc cases were reported in Punjab, with the most reported cases coming from Rawalpindi, Multan and Faisalabad. Although the statistics show that crimes against children are mostly an urban phenomenon, in reality it is a rural phenomenon, and is transitory in nature.
Another issue is the length of the investigation process. Even in a developed country such as the UK, investigating child sexual abuse offences takes an average of 248 days. In Pakistan, however, sensitivities and professional technicalities attached to such investigations are yet to be realised, investigations of high-profile cases are usually influenced by intense media scrutiny. The lengthy process from reporting to prosecution causes victims to lose interest, resulting in a low conviction rate. In 2010, the conviction rate in India was 37.4pc, while in Pakistan it was 8.7pc. Insufficient gathering and analysis of forensic evidence, non-cooperating victims, reluctant witnesses, poorly trained investigators, indifferent prosecutors, delays in trial proceedings and overburdened courts are just some of the issues within the criminal justice system hampering child protection.
In a post 9/11 world, counter-terrorism inter-agency coordination among law enforcement agencies improved coordination and information sharing, which resulted in better prevention and response strategies. Inter-agency cooperation will certainly improve conviction rates. To deal with car lifting, extortion, terrorism and kidnapping, specialised units have been created. However, specialised child abuse units are yet to be created. In Pakistan, women constitute less than 2pc of the total police strength, therefore resulting in a force that lacks a humane and protective posture.
Compartmentalised interventions have failed to protect our children. Child protection requires political will manifested in an integrated national approach that strengthens the preventative apparatus not just in the justice system but also the social sector and communities. National and provincial legislatures need to review existing child protection laws while reforming the existing apparatus. Federal and provincial governments must do their part by increasing funding for and synchronising child protection initiatives. Every child deserves a safe childhood, and this is an achievable goal.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2019