KARACHI: Another city; another missing child; another garbage heap; another dead body. Same crime: kidnapping, rape and murder.
A five-year-old girl goes missing on September 4, 2020 this time in Karachi. She is kidnapped, raped and murdered and her body found on a garbage heap. This time the body has been torched.
News of this incident spreads via social media and once again ignites protests. People demand justice for this child and others like her.
Crimes against children are increasing in Pakistan. According to Sahil’s — a non-government organisation — cruel numbers, child sexual abuse has increased by 14 per cent.
In the NGO’s Six Months Cruel Numbers Report the number of child abuse cases reported between January to June this year is 1,489 out of which 53pc were girls and 47pc boys and that more than eight children were abused daily during the first six months of the year. According to the report, 32pc of these cases were reported in Sindh.
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However, the number of cases only includes the ones reported. The actual number is probably higher.
The main reason for this, as Aamna Latif of Aahung, an NGO working to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights said in an email to Dawn, is “The culture of guilt and shame associated with the body that is inculcated in children since a young age (amongst other factors), you would agree that there is under-reporting of sexual abuse, so numbers are actually much higher than this.”
There are laws in Sindh that provide protection to children but lack of awareness and implementation makes them useless. Ms Latif says, “Under the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act 2011, the Sindh Child Protection Authority was established which boasts Child Protection Units in 29 districts of Sindh. They claim to have rescued about 1,000 children all over the province over the last year, and provided legal aid to them via special courts.”
‘Habitual offenders & weakness of justice system’
Recently, Barrister Murtaza Wahab, adviser to the CM on law, expressed grave concern over rising incidents of crimes against children, especially child disappearances and abuse.
Commenting on the matter, Mr Wahab told Dawn: “The real change or effective curb on such crimes will only happen once we have the people accused of such offences convicted. No deterrence can be created without stringent punishment to the wrongdoers. Unfortunately, people involved in such crimes including the ones against women are usually habitual offenders and the recent Motorway incident again shows weakness of our criminal justice system that the person who allegedly committed the act was earlier involved in similar offences.”
Speaking about reforms, Mr Wahab said, “We need reforms for expediting the trial of such cases. Government of Sindh (GoS) wants to push a new law which would have shortened processes and hopefully once passed by Assembly we would require the Courts to implement it.
“Once we have courts deciding these matters fast it would lead to the following: A) deterring the criminals because of fear of conviction; B) having a database of such habitual offenders so that they can be effectively tracked and traced; C) social issues with family being reluctant to report such crimes would also be sorted,” he added.
Mr Wahab thinks that there is a need to “Encourage families to report. Right now the families, due to various reasons, are not encouraged to report such matters. CPA law needs certain amendments which I am taking to the Assembly.”
At present, the Sindh government has a child helpline, 1121.
Speaking about this, Mr Wahab said, “There is a helpline for child issues which is functional but it needs more awareness. Moreover, the 15 mechanism of Sindh police also needs to be used by families as and when any child goes missing.”
But things are being done at a very slow pace which is why some people have begun taking initiative themselves to protect children by creating safe environments for minors.
Tasneem Ashraf, an educationist, teacher trainer and supervisor at a day care centre says: “We are so careful about children’s safety that we tell parents that if the child is going to be picked by a driver, uncle or anyone he will not be allowed to carry the child physically unless the child is under one year.”
Ms Ashraf added that “I take immediate action if I see anyone carry a child who is capable of walking. Once I saw a driver pick a child and carry her to the car. I called the mother and told her that we do not allow children to be carried like this, even if the person is reliable. And she should also make sure this does not happen.”
However people taking up the responsibility is not enough. The government also needs to take responsibility and take steps to make the province safer for children. And also to ensure that laws are easily implemented and speedy action is taken after a crime is committed.
Currently there is a vacuum, as the government is unable or unwilling to do its part to protect children. Fortunately, NGOs have stepped in and are providing information, legal support and even shelters to those who need them. Perhaps the government can get its act together and set up a workable system with help from these organizations by adopting their existing structures.
“Aahung has a referral system where we pass on information to survivors of sexual abuse for them to be able to seek physical, psychological and legal recourse,” Aamna Latif says.
“There are a few civil society organisations who have independent shelter homes for women and children who are victims of abuse. These are, again, not long-term solutions. However, there are no such places of refuge which are government-run. They largely exist on paper — are budgeted for and misallocated.”
The federal and provincial governments can learn from these NGOs.
A good place to begin would be to consider these recommendations given by Aahung.
The state must introduce Child Protection via Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) in all schools with parent education being a critical aspect. Children must be taught in school how to identify and protect themselves from abuse as well as how to respect others and prevent themselves from becoming abusers. School LSBE programmes must also engage and sensitise parents to identify signs of abuse and support their children in feeling safe and confident about reporting abuse.
The state must launch regular mass awareness campaigns through media for parents, law enforcement agencies and healthcare providers to listen to children and support them, an essential social pre-requisite for justice.
The state must establish special police units at the district level with male and female officers trained to deal sensitively with cases of child sexual abuse. Additionally, all police stations need to be equipped with rape kits and forensic lab support within their province.
The state must activate and mobilise their Child Protection Units in every province, and within each province ensure their presence in every district. Child protection institutions (CPIs) practicing alternative family-based care must (a) rescue and protect children, specially survivors of child sexual abuse, when families are not safe and (b) also monitor any institutions interacting with children and hold them accountable as per law.
The state must establish specific child-friendly courts to ensure that child survivors get access to sensitive justice.
The state must invest in ensuring an increase in the number of women in the police force, in the legal profession (as lawyers and prosecutors) and mandate an increase in the number of female judges and female medico-legal officers.
The state must provide free legal aid to survivors of child sexual abuse.
The state must provide free counselling and therapy for survivors of child sexual abuse by specially trained therapists.
The state must mandate hospitals, clinics and health units to provide awareness to and train and sensitise healthcare providers to provide appropriate care to survivors of child sexual abuse.
Finally, the state must establish strong linkages between relevant departments including education, child welfare, police and health, as well as the civil society voices, especially child rights organisations to build a coordinated approach to end violence against children.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2020