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Burial of the living

By: Rafia Zakaria

ON July 12, 2012 a baby was born in the village of Kacha Koh in Khanewal, Punjab. According to medical workers at the hospital, the baby’s head was larger than normal. While the infant’s mother was still in hospital, her father took the baby to the local mosque and asked the imam to hold a funeral.

During the funeral, the imam reported that the baby started to cry. On hearing this, the imam asked the father to take the baby to the hospital. Instead, Chand Khan, the baby’s father, took the infant to the graveyard and buried it. He has since been arrested by the local police and faces charges of murdering his infant daughter.

In Pakistani society, stories of children abandoned or hidden away in the back rooms of both mansions and tiny apartments are plentiful. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 10 per cent of Pakistani children and adults face some sort of disability.

In 2002, the Government of Pakistan produced a National Policy for Persons with Disabilities whose stated vision was “to provide by 2025 an inclusive environment that would allow full realization of the potential of persons with disabilities through their inclusive mainstreaming and providing them full support of the government, private sector and civil society” based on the “guarantees provided by the constitution of Pakistan, the Islamic principles of justice and equality” and international instruments on human rights.

In 2006, a national plan of action to implement this policy was developed by the Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education. In the process of its development, the plan of action brought together hundreds of stakeholders, including governmental and non-governmental agencies to develop and propose steps for action for the next five years.

It was through this document, covering everything including access, education and resource provision to allow equalization of opportunities for disabled children and to educate teachers and other members of society about the needs of disabled children and better systems for health-service delivery to them, that the dire situation duly noted in the national policy of 2002 was to be addressed.

It was a great plan, and many put much work and much hope into it. But as the years passed, Pakistan and Pakistanis descended deeper into wrangling over this prime minister and the next, demands for apologies and blocked supply routes, and incessant power shortages. The plan, like the newborn girl, was basically buried alive.

In 2012, few, if any, of its provisions seem to have been implemented. The detailed timeline that provided goals and frameworks via which the policy was to be introduced in schools, hospitals, community health centers and other areas of service provision has lapsed as well with little evidence of any of them having been achieved.

Of course the problem is not Pakistan’s alone. The WHO, in a report released on the same day as the living child’s funeral in Khanewal and published in the medical journal Lancet, reported that 26.7 per cent of all children with disabilities suffer physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse, and neglect during their lifetimes.

In addition, children with mental disabilities face even higher odds of violence and sexual abuse, nearly all of them experiencing some form of it. Data based specifically on Pakistan shows even more dismal realities. According to the UN news agency Irin, disabled children in Pakistan are also now being targeted for human trafficking, with gangs in the poorest regions of Sindh and Punjab buying children from their parents or relatives for as little as $200 and then smuggling them across the border to Iran to beg at shrines and other places of worship.

Disabled children who were injured in the October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan face neglect with many of the 23,000 affected still lacking services such as access to schools or to healthcare with little hope of improvement in their condition.

Those who are weak or different are always vulnerable in societies that rely only on the crudest evolutionary logic. In Pakistan, the disdain and denigration afforded to disability is but one manifestation of just such an ethic where survival trumps everything else and the appearance of weakness in any form crudely trumps any prerogative for dignity afforded to those who are different from the mainstay of imagined perfection everyone else thinks themselves to be.

So entrenched are these attitudes that even the most pious can spare only pity for those who are born different, failing in their act of compassion to fathom that difference and weakness can ever deserve respect.

In the run-up to the month of yearly reckoning, when many will stand to evaluate the sins of the year past, or list the aspirations of the year approaching, there are many burials to ponder. There are the burials of the tens and then hundreds and then thousands who have fallen victim to targeted killings in Karachi and Quetta.

There are the burials of young women like Farida Afridi who wanted to make the lives of others better, end cycles of abuse and silence for one, then another and then an infinite generation of women.

There are the burials of pilgrims massacred on buses, soldiers dying in avalanches and children killed by mobs. And then there is this burial of the daughter of Chand Khan of Khanewal, a burial that should have been a birthday celebration, a burial most brutal because it was not for the dead, but for the living.