The National Assembly on Friday approved the Zainab Alert, Recovery and Response Bill, 2019, exactly two years after the body of nine-year-old Zainab Ansari, a rape-murder victim, was found in Kasur in 2018.
The bill was presented by Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari in June last year.
Zainab's rape and murder in 2018 had sparked outrage and protests across the country after she was found dead in a trash heap in Kasur on January 9.
Her case was the twelfth such incident to occur within a 10 kilometre radius in the city over a 12-month period.
The heinous nature of the crime had seen immediate riots break out in Kasur — in which two people were killed — while #JusticeforZainab became a rallying cry for an end to violence against children.
In August 2019, a parliamentary committee deferred the passage of Zainab Alert Bill with directions to the government to rationalise the "extreme" punishment proposed for sexual assault against children.
All members of the committee, except a few, had opposed rigorous imprisonment until death for sexual assault of children. Others had said that rigorous imprisonment with a death sentence was a fitting punishment for individuals sexually assaulting minor children.
Under the bill passed on Friday, the maximum sentence handed down to perpetrators of child sexual abuse will be life imprisonment with a fine of Rs1 million while the minimum sentence will be 10 years.
Further, a helpline will also be established to report missing children while an agency, for issuing an alert for missing children, will also be set up.
The bill also proposes taking action against police officials who cause unnecessary delay in investigating such cases, adding that those who fail to respond to the alert within two hours may also face action.
However, according to the bill, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the measures introduced only extend to the Islamabad Capital Territory.
This is because the National Assembly’s powers are limited as the bill involves the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Code of Procedures.
Therefore, the bill will have to be taken up in the provincial assemblies in order to be implemented at a provincial level.
Speaking during the session, Federal Planning, Development and Reforms Minister Asad Umar said that all cases involving the kidnapping, rape and murder of minor children will be required to complete investigations within three months.
Taking to Twitter, Umar expressed the hope that the bill is also passed in the Senate, adding that protecting the country’s minor children should be the responsibility of the country’s lawmakers as well as of the state.
Once the bill is passed by the Senate, it will pave the way for setting up Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Agency where missing child cases will be reported and which will generate an automatic alert.
In the last few years, Kasur has been rocked by multiple incidents of abuse, rape and killing of children.
In 2015, Kasur’s Hussain Khanwala village had attracted worldwide attention when a child pornography ring was busted. Hundreds of video clips had emerged showing a gang forcing dozens of minor boys and girls to perform sexual acts and filming them. The gang had also used the videos to blackmail families of the children and extorted millions in cash and jewellery from them.
Last year, once again, the Punjab district came into the limelight after police in September found remains of three minor boys who they suspected were murdered after being sexually assaulted.
At the time, Mazari had said it was "shocking to see continuing stories of child abuse victims surfacing in Kasur".
In a series of tweets, she had said the government's Zainab Alert Bill has been pending with the National Assembly Standing Committee on Human Rights chaired by PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari "for months now".
Mazari had said her ministry had written to the standing committee to forward the bill to NA but it had not been done so far, terming the situation "frustrating procedures of unnecessary delays in human rights non-political legislation".