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Whose child is this?

September 26, 2012


THE State of Pakistan’s Children 2011 report prepared and launched by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child puts the spotlight on us as caregivers of children.

But do we care or hold ourselves collectively responsible? Sparc’s report very appropriately quotes the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela who said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

A glance at the report establishes beyond doubt that we have blackened our souls. How else will you treat the following information provided by the report: 25 million children out of school; 10 million child workers slogging it out in factories and workplaces to support their families; 300,000 street children with no homes to return to at night; 68 per cent of children in Pakistan found to be stunted in 2011 with the number growing every year.

We also have the dubious distinction of displaying the worst record in South Asia in our treatment of children, with the exception of Afghanistan. This inhumane approach towards young people has become the hallmark of our society.

It seems strange that we cannot see the very simple fact that children grow up to be adults. The quality of the health, education, emotional and social nurturing we give them will determine their calibre in adulthood. The future of the country depends on its human resources which are created from its children. William Wordsworth summed it up so beautifully when he wrote “The Child is father of the Man”.

To a great extent this is a cultural trait as filial piety has been inherent in our inter-generational relationships. In many societies with similar characteristics the shift is now towards a child-centred approach.

Unfortunately, we have failed to show any human concern for our children. Since they lack the capacity and power to articulate their needs and have their voices heard, children have emerged as the most oppressed section of our population. Some politicians even reportedly declare that they do not form a vote bank or a constituency so why bother about them.

Since parents are also callous towards issues of collective concern vis-à-vis children, they fail to speak up on behalf of their offspring. Resourceful and privileged parents work on an individual level for their own children while the child of the underdog is neglected.

The Pakistan government has signed a number of child-related international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1990 — the move was basically Benazir Bhutto’s initiative. The government ratified the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 2011 but has failed to ratify the protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. It is also committed to the Education for All goal and the Millennium Development Goals; the core human rights conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory are applicable to children as well.

These, however, do not translate into action on the ground as the available data shows. All international laws have to be backed up by domestic laws but these have not been enacted, leaving activists for children’s rights without a legal framework. The 18th Amendment has made the process complex and also slowed it down since every province is now required to pass its own law. Take the case of the National Commission on the Rights of Children. The commission is designed to be a monitoring body to ensure implementation of the convention. But it still has to become an effective body with teeth.

The problem is that with a weak human rights implementation record Pakistan fails to safeguard the rights of children even when they are clearly spelt out. Since our society is not child-friendly and hardly sensitised to his needs, it doesn’t come naturally to our policymakers to keep the rights of children in focus and integrate them in governmental planning.

The need is to create a stake in the child for society, as pointed out by Salam Dharejo, Pakistan’s representative of Terre des Hommes, a children’s aid group. He says that when we speak of child labour we view it from an economic perspective. We see the child as a source of earning for his family — invariably impoverished.

This is an exclusive approach as it doesn’t concern that section of society whose children are not required to work. In fact, the affluent exploit the poverty of the poor to hire children to work in their homes at very low pay.

What is important is to view the child in the context of society. This would be an inclusive approach. Any benefits that accrue to Zaid’s or Bakr’s child would also be in the interest of the children of Tom, Dick or Harry. How? A child brought up in a healthy atmosphere and provided good education will be an asset for the entire society.

In his interview with a young potential suicide bomber, Dharejo probed his background and discovered that the child had all the makings of a terrorist. He was working in a coal mine from where he was picked up by the militants, had no education and his life was so nasty and brutish that he simply wanted a change. But had he succeeded in his mission, this child, the son of a Bakr or Zaid, could have killed the son of a Tom or Dick. It is time to think.