ISLAMABAD: In a better-late-than-never development, the National Assembly finally approved the Zainab Alert, Recovery and Response Bill, 2019, on Friday, on the second death anniversary of nine-year-old Zainab Ansari, who was raped and killed by a serial rapist in Kasur in 2018.

The gory incident sparked outrage in the country and raised questions over the security of children and responsibilities on the part of the authorities concerned to prevent increasing child abuse in Pakistan.

Interestingly, the bill had been sent to the NA Stan­ding Committee on Human Rights, headed by Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, in April last year and it took nine months for the panel to present it before the house.

Under the bill, maximum punishment for child abuse and killing is life imprisonment, with a fine of Rs1 million, as the proposal of death penalty was rejected by the committee. The minimum sentence will be 10 years.

A helpline will be established to report missing children while an agency will be created to issue an alert for a missing child.

The bill, presented by Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari, will be enforced only in the federal capital, as law and order is a provincial subject after 18th Amendment.

Zainab was abducted, raped and murdered in 2018 and her body was found in a garbage dump in Kasur on January 9. It was twelfth such incident to occur within the 10km radius in the city over a 12-month period.

Later, serial rapist Imran Ali, who had killed Zainab, was arrested and hanged till death in Oct 2018.

The bill was tabled in the previous assembly by PTI lawmaker Asad Umar but it lapsed after completion of the tenure of the House on May 31, 2018. The government again moved the same bill on April 24, 2019 and it was referred to the Standing Committee on Human Rights. After deliberations in the House, the report of the committee on the bill was presented on Jan 9 and it was passed on 10th.

Following the passage of the bill, Dr Mazari expressed gratitude to the members of the house and said: “Today is a big day as the bill has been passed on the occasion of second death anniversary of Zainab.”

The HR minister said a national action plan had been prepared against child abuse and molestation which would be launched before the end of this month and a registry of convicted sexual offenders was also being prepared with the cooperation of Federal Investigation Agency.

On the latest incident of child abuse in Mansehra, she said the provincial government has taken notice of the despicable incident. The movers of the calling attention notice demanded strict action against those involved in heinous acts of child abuse.

PPP MNA Dr Mahreen Razzaq Bhutto, who is also a member of the committee, said the law should not be implemented only in Islamabad but all over the country.

In August 2019, a parliamentary committee deferred the passage of Zainab Alert Bill with directives 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. Others had said that rigorous imprisonment with a death sentence was a fitting punishment for individuals sexually assaulting minor children.

The bill also proposes taking action against police officials who cause unnecessary delay in investigating such cases, stating that those who fail to respond to the alert within two hours should face action.

Speaking during the session, Federal Planning, Development and Reforms Minister Asad Umar said that under the bill, an investigation into a case involving the kidnapping, rape and murder of a minor child would be required to be completed within three months.

He expressed the hope that the bill would also be passed by the Senate as protecting minor children should be the responsibility of the country’s lawmakers as well of the State.

Once the bill is passed by the Senate, it will pave the way for the establishment of Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Agency where missing child cases will be reported and which will generate an automatic alert.

In 2015, Kasur’s Hussain Khanwala village had attracted worldwide attention when a child pornography gang was busted. Hundreds of video clips had emerged showing a gang of paedophiles 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.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2020