Failure to protect

01 Oct 2019

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The writer, a public health consultant, is a research fellow at Lums, and author of So Much Aid So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan.
The writer, a public health consultant, is a research fellow at Lums, and author of So Much Aid So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan.

THE recent brutal rape and murder of three young children in Kasur — another string of tragic events among many — raises many questions.

Why, in spite of innumerable laws on child rights and bureaus on child safety, do we fail to protect children? There is the constitutional right to education and prohibition against child labour. The Child Protection Act, 1989, puts the responsibility to protect children who are liable to harm on local authorities. Children in Kasur have been liable to harm for years; there was Zainab in 2018, Kainat in 2017, and many more before them — and since. So what did/are local authorities doing to protect Kasur’s children?

Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, and its operational protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 2011. The government followed up with a bill in the National Assembly in 2015 that allowed the National Child Protection Commission to be set up, “to come in force at once”, with details of its members’ qualifications, privileges of the chairperson and its funding worked out. The commission is empowered to “inquire into violation of child rights” and it has “powers vested as a civil court under code of Civil Procedure 1908 (Act V of 1908)”. Where is the commission?

In November 2017, after little Kainat was found molested and nearly dead, the Kasur Child Protection Bureau was set up. It has powers over a “child who is being, or likely to be abused or exploited for immoral or illegal purposes”. Under the bureau’s watch, in January 2018, little Zainab was raped and killed. Again, many plans came into being to fix things on a ‘war footing’. The police was to be ‘beefed up’ and its non-performers fired. In October 2018, Zainab’s perpetrator was found and executed. And then ‘the matter faded away’.

What have Punjab’s child services agencies done?

Faded away for whom? Maybe for the authorities, but not for the people of Kasur. For them, this terrible matter still remains alive, urgent and painful. What has Kasur’s Child Protection Bureau done in these two years?

In 2018, the Punjab government set up its Child Protection and Welfare Bureau. This August, Fawad Chaudhry visited the bureau’s Lahore office and praised its working. The federal minister also announced the launch of the new Mohafiz Mobile app to “make Pakistan free of child abuse”. The wife of the Punjab governor, the chief secretary and his family also paid the bureau visits in August. All appreciated the bureau’s work under its chairperson Sarah Ahmad’s leadership, who in her Aug 14 speech appealed to the world to “protect Kashmiri children”, while children continued to go missing in Kasur. Wasn’t her bureau supposed to know and do something?

The provincial government, it seems, is serious about Kasur. In July 2019, the chief minister undertook initiatives worth Rs1.5 billion, and laid the foundation for two more worth Rs220 million. He inaugurated the Safe City Project, constituted a Safe City Authority for Kasur and chaired its meeting. He initiated the Punjab Police Command, Control and Communication Centre and Rescue 1122 emergency service centres in Mustafabad and Khudian. All this, while the parents of missing children were running from one protective bureau to another in search of their lost offspring.

After the children’s bodies were found, the chief minister offered the standard palliative that authorities usually do — one which has yet to work. He ordered the setting up of a child protection centre in Kasur. Will this be in addition to the already existing Child Protection Bureau, and the new Safe City Project? He offered head money to find the perpetrators, threatened to mete out exemplary punishments to them, and to fire non-performers. He ordered the police force to be beefed up — again. Will this ‘beefing up’ be beyond the Police Command, Control and Communication Centre started in July?

While the chief minister was giving these orders, another child was abducted. The police admit that there has been an increase in sexual abuse cases over the past seven months — this, after the Kasur Child Protection Bureau was set up and police force beefed up. What do they, the Child Protection Bureau and beefed-up Kasur police, have to say?

Maybe it is time that the chief minister, ins­tead of creating new bureaus for child protection, tried to find out why existing ones do not work. Listening to Prime Minister Imran Khan will help. In his Sept 23 talk at the Coun­cil on Foreign Relations in New York, he exp­lained the reason for poor results is not the absence of laws but their poor implementation. Isn’t that the job of provincial governments?

“Lip service will not work,” said the Punjab chief minister to the Kasur authorities. An excellent principle. It is time to apply it, otherwise it too will remain just that – lip service.

The writer, a public health consultant, is a research fellow at Lums, and author of So Much Aid So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2019