For children

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ROMANTICISED for our transformative potential and criticised for our passivity, Pakistan’s youth resides in a tumultuous space where many pin hopes but few engage with the complexities. Our inaction disappoints but does not push people to understand what makes young citizens so aware and yet so inactive.

A simplistic answer is perceived disinterest. If we dig deeper, however, we realise it is more of a pragmatic surrender to things that will never change. This widening gap between leaders and the youth troubles few because the worth of proximity is unknown. Oscillating between the discomforts of silence and the futility of questioning, young people take a backseat. But some incidents compel us to go beyond the comforts of collective amnesia, resist the languages we know too well, and hope a little more.

On May 31, eight-year-old Zohra Shah was allegedly murdered by her employers for releasing their parrots from a cage. Prior to this incident, her bodily autonomy was violated, and her abuse documented. Although it generated some outrage, such cases don’t feel unusual anymore. It was only in December 2016 that we were appalled by Tayabba’s case. Nor are these isolated incidents. There are too many untold stories of children’s plight in this country.

Children’s rights are outliers in Pakistan’s human rights discourse. We have only just seen some skin-deep discussion on the issue; the first ever commission on children’s rights was notified earlier this year, and met for the first time last month. The Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act was recently passed with great fanfare, but the agency tasked with implementation is inactive. The Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR) seeks to amend the Employment of Children Act (ECA), 1991, to formally include domestic labour as a form of hazardous work.

A commitment to justice must reveal a mindset for reform.

All this looks promising on paper but remains bleak in practice, limiting youth engagement to hashtags and rhetoric. While it is important to call for justice for Zohra, we must go beyond our tendency to limit accountability to perpetrators and pay heed to a system that enables such endemic degeneracy. A commitment to justice must reveal a mindset for reform that seeks to prevent such incidents in the future. We cannot keep applying bandages; we must pivot to prevent the cuts.

Young people must consider the following approaches to propel any meaningful change:

  1. A commitment to revise Article 11(3) of the Constitution to raise the legal working age and include domestic labour as formal work. Amending the ECA will have little to no impact on provinces, as the multiple definitions of ‘child’ will continue to complicate implementation and regulation. While amendments require time and will, there has to be a pursuit to achieve this. The article should be amended to ensure consistency and countrywide compliance, with a defined code of working conditions, hours and wages stipulated by a written contract.

  2. The National Commission on the Rights of the Child must develop an actionable agenda for child protection with provincial committees. But agendas are futile if not supported by targeted, on-ground programmes. While most provinces have legislation, the relevant departments are far from equipped to take necessary measures for children’s safety. A structured and cohesive child protection programme that attends to the dire conditions of shelter homes; includes robust accountability checks for inspection officers; gathers relevant data; and facilitates continuous development of front-line officers must be at the forefront of the immediate agenda.

  3. Increase public service messaging on TV, print and digital media to spread awareness about domestic child labour and abuse. For issues as deeply entrenched as children’s maltreatment, a sustained commitment to awareness is vital. Short-lived campaigns do not penetrate long-standing ways of thinking. Constant public TV messaging that reiterates a zero-tolerance policy for maltreatment and compels citizens to report cases must be adopted. A platform for young citizens to initiate a countrywide campaign can help tip the conversation towards education and safety.

There is no cheap ticket to change. But, there must be an impetus to go beyond superfluous quick fixes; to have the tough conversations and undertake the frustrating albeit necessary work of changing mores by truly engaging the citizenry. The MoHR will pursue Zohra’s case but they need to do more. They must push for the kind of justice that transcends one case and propels systematic change to alter our course as a nation. They must push the paper to practice.

Shazminay Durrani is an education consultant. Kayhan Qaiser is a STEM educator and curriculum adviser. The article has been written on behalf of the non-profit Bachpan Na Cheeno team.

Twitter: @ShazminayD

Twitter: @kayhan_qaiser

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020