THE passage by the Senate on Friday of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2015 has finally put in place some much-needed sanctions against child abuse in Pakistan. The bill, which was passed by the National Assembly in December, raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 10 years of age, and brings in a number of important changes to the Pakistan Penal Code by taking a broader view of acts that constitute child abuse. Among the various components of the bill, sexual assault of minors is punishable by seven years’ incarceration, whereas earlier only rape was criminalised. Similarly, child pornography, which did not previously find a mention in the PPC, is now punishable by a seven-year prison term and a fine of Rs700,000. Child trafficking within the country has also been recognised as a criminal act; earlier, traffickers only attracted sanctions if they removed children from the country.
In a country where around 40pc of the population constitutes under-18s, these changes to the law were long overdue, not to mention legally required as per our international obligations. After all, Pakistan has been a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1990, but its laws were woefully, shamefully inadequate in protecting minors from sexual abuse whether at the hands of predatory adults or older children. This was highlighted time and again in the media through stories of children violated in the home, in the school/madressah or on the street. However, as is the wont of societies that are reactive rather than proactive, it took a particularly horrific case — that of the child abuse in Kasur district — to shock the country into acting against the paedophiles amongst us. In that instance, it emerged over the course of a few weeks in August 2015 that scores of minors — perhaps as many as 200-plus — had been sexually abused for years and their ordeal filmed in order to blackmail them and their families. While it is encouraging that there is now legislation in place to deal specifically with crimes against minors, there must be, as always, steps taken to ensure implementation of the law as well as awareness of the issue to make it easier for children themselves to recognise sexual abuse and report it. Maintaining a prudish silence on such matters only leaves our children vulnerable to those who would perpetrate unspeakable acts of brutality against them.