REALISING the extent of child abuse in the country, the Senate has done well to review and attempt to improve the Zainab Alert Bill that was passed last month by the National Assembly. During its deliberations, the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights decided to incorporate the jurisdiction of anti-terrorism courts in the bill in an attempt to make its provisions applicable across the country. Earlier, the bill could only be implemented in the federal capital. Meanwhile, in its last meeting, the Senate Special Committee on Child Protection asked for details of child abuse cases from all over Pakistan, while also calling for an analysis of child protection laws in other Saarc countries in an effort to improve the bill. The committee also called for consistent coverage of the issue of child abuse by the media in order to expedite the policymaking process.
That the senators understand the criticality of the issue is a good sign. However, Pakistani legislators must admit that a number of months elapsed between the introduction of the bill and its passage by the National Assembly. The bill was passed in January this year, two years after the gruesome rape and murder of young Zainab Ansari and eight long months after its introduction in the lower house by Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari. The delay, apparently, was caused when a parliamentary committee deferred the bill’s passage in August 2019 due to a controversy over the originally proposed maximum punishment of rigorous imprisonment. Though the issue now stands resolved with the revision of the punishment clause in the bill passed by the lower house last month — life imprisonment with a fine of Rs1m and a minimum sentence of 10 years — one wonders how many other innocent children might have faced abuse at the hands of predators during this time. The senators, with all their good intentions, also need to acknowledge the urgency of the matter. The little boy who was raped more than 100 times by his madressah teacher in Mansehra (December 2019), the second-grade student violated by the school watchman in Charsadda (October 2019) and another girl who was raped and killed by two men in Nowshera (January 2020) might have been spared their ordeal had there been a strict law in place. It is now time to finalise the bill so that it can be passed and enforced as the law. The children of the country depend upon it.
Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2020