Nearly two months after the death of Shazia Masih, the government is yet to take substantial steps towards protection of children's rights in Pakistan. Shazia's case first appeared after she was declared dead at Lahore's Jinnah Hospital, suspected to have succumbed to torture by her employers. According to reports, she had several marks of a sharp-edged weapon on her body, her right arm and a rib were fractured, her skull was damaged, and her nails had been plucked out.
Despite the brutality, Shazia's culprits were granted bail last month by a court in Lahore. Chaudary Naeem, former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was Shazia's employer; it was while working in his house that she was prohibited from meeting her parents, paid a meagre Rs. 1,000 a month, tortured, and eventually reportedly killed. Chaudary's son and wife had already filed for pre-arrest bail and were also let off.
I strongly believe in upholding the decisions of the judiciary, even if they go against my expectations. But I found it particularly difficult to accept the decision when the court also decided to grant post-arrest bail to Amanat, a middleman allegedly involved in child labour. This man in particular was responsible for hiring Shazia at the Chaudary household and acts as a middleman for many other children involved in labour. In light of Shazia’s fate, I protest the court's decision to grant bail to a man allegedly involved in child labour. It makes one question whether the court of law even considers child labour a crime in the first place.
In this context, it is even more appalling that the parliament is yet to pass bills that would ensure the protection of children’s rights in the country. Technically, then, the culprits behind Shazia's death cannot be held accountable in the absence of such a law. The enactment and enforcement of Protection of Children (Criminal Laws Amendments) Bill 2009 and the National Commission on the Rights of Children Bill 2009 are pending, despite an increase in child abuse cases.
Even more ironic is the fact that there is no Ministry of Children in Pakistan. The existing National Commission on Child Welfare and Development (NCCWD) and Provincial Commissions (PCCWDs) are just recommendatory in nature. These bodies can do little in cases such as that of four-year-old Sara, who was abducted by her own brother-in-law and sexually abused. When she was recovered from his house, Sara’s limbs were broken, her eye damaged with a pair of scissors, and her body gashed with razor blades. Her assailant was arrested, but Sara’s widowed, uneducated mother was induced to agree to an out-of-court settlement.
Sara and Shazia's cases are examples of the heinous crimes that have been going unnoticed for years. According to a local NGO, reported child sexual abuse cases numbered over 2,000 last year, are up 10 per cent from the year before, and double the figure 10 years ago. Without the enactment into law of the two national child protection bills tabled in parliament in 2009, these statistics are only bound to rise.
The terrible condition of children's rights in Pakistan demand immediate attention. In the present situation, war-stricken children have become more prone to child-trafficking and hence sexual and physical abuse. Ignoring the issue further can be catastrophic. In 2007, War Against Rape (WAR) had, in over 10 years, recorded 22 cases where children – both boys and girls – have been sexually abused or raped by a parent (these statistics only represent cases that were reported). In most instances, abuse goes unnoticed and most victims are either too afraid to admit to the violation, or are snubbed by family members when they do so.
In a society where even reporting one the most heinous crimes is taboo, and in the absence of stringent laws against certain practices, abuse becomes rampant. We have already suffered at the hands of pending bills and inquiry committees, and it's about time we demand an answer. What is stopping the government from enforcing a law for the prevention of physical and sexual abuse of children? Shouldn't the alarming statistics make the matter worthy of immediate attention? More importantly, why do most of us choose to remain silent while the state continues to delay important issues such as guaranteeing the rights of our children?
Shazia’s case not only exposes the loopholes in our judicial system, but also highlights the lack of understanding of child abuse among the public at large. The fact that Shazia's parents were forced to withdraw their power of attorney, pressurised and harassed by none other than lawyers themselves, is atrocious. Let's acknowledge the crimes, for only then will we be able to fight against such barbarity.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.