After Zainab’s death, much focus was on punishing her perpetrator. While news and media covered the case as a crime series, uncovering her perpetrator to talking about the time of his death, less attention was paid to the systematic failure to protect children at large.
Globally it is estimated that 1 in 5 girls are sexually abused before reaching their eighteenth birthday (WHO). The assumption is that more than one billion children are victims of violence every year around the globe. It is important to note that child sexual abuse often has a strong relationship with other forms of child rights violations and victimisation including physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, impacting the child’s physical, mental and reproductive health for life. Like most developing countries, Pakistan is struggling to prevent and manage child abuse and neglect.
We have denied child abuse and neglect for years. While much research has been conducted in other developing countries, little research and literature can be found about child abuse and neglect in Pakistan. Currently, we are only relying on newspaper reporting and small-scale studies. “Sahil’s Cruel Number Report” compiles data from newspapers and gives us a glimpse of the issue. However, we do not have a national or provincial Child Protection Information Management Systems to register cases of child abuse and neglect. A centralised database, which collects information from law enforcing agencies, hospitals, social welfare and other departments is essential to understand prevalence, dynamics and trends of violence.
For protection purposes, children along with their stakeholders need to be sensitised and trained accordingly. Seminars and short training are being given to various stakeholders including teachers and doctors by NGOs, and independent bodies and efforts have been made to include aspects of body protection in the curriculum for children. PAHCHAAN and Child Rights Department, University of Lahore has incorporated child abuse and neglect in existing curriculums for nursing, allied health sciences, medicine and media but this only count for a fraction of sensitised professionals. For better parents and professionals, there is a need to include child rights and protection in curriculums for all disciplines especially those who will be directly or indirectly working for children. Children need to be sensitised about body protection from an early age. By providing them either no information or half cooked information by untrained caregivers, we are only reinforcing the same myths, taboos and fears that we need to fight against.
While working with victims of child abuse and neglect, we often find ourselves at a systematic dead end. Even if doctors, teachers or parents report cases of child abuse and neglect, we lack response and support services to provide victims with adequate medical, psycho-social and legal services. At PAHCHAANs Child Protection Unit, Children Hospital Lahore every year 100-150 severely abused and neglected children are managed. Each victim needs further home support to help them, and their families deal with trauma, making it easy for them to return to their school and everyday life. If the perpetrator is living in the same house as the child and is a potential danger, the question of where to keep the child safe remains. While this is just the tip of an iceberg, from one hospital, hundreds go undetected, unreported and unmanaged. There is a need for early case detection, management and referral mechanisms, operating in schools, institutions, hospitals and police stations.
The Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act 2016, gives us a firm legal ground to fight against child abuse and neglect. It covers a range of issues related to violence against children including cruelty to the child, sexual abuse, trafficking and child pornography. However, there is a need to train pre-service and in-service law enforcing personnel about this Act along with other laws related to children.
The Child Protection and Welfare Bureau (CPWB) is the governmental body for protecting children who are destitute, but it has limited scope to prevent and protect children from all backgrounds. During most child protection policy matters, child protection is added in CPWBs mandate; however, even after fourteen years, it is still struggling to make its rules of business and policies for protecting children. There is a dire need for comprehensive child protection mechanism which ensures implementation of laws, training of caregivers and other stakeholders, safe environment for children, parent and caregiver support, response and support services and education and life skills for vulnerable children.
Child Protection is interrelated with other rights of the child. If survival, development and participation rights of the child are not looked after and are compromised, the chances of abuse and neglect multiply. The National Commission on the Rights of the Child 2017 has been legislated which aims to take a right based holistic approach, but it is still in the process of nominating its members one and a half year after it was passed. While a federal body has been legislated, the 18th Amendment has given the subject of children to provinces. Hence, it is vital to establish powerful Provincial Child Rights Commissions which ensures the fulfilment of rights of all children as enshrined in our law and the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Children.
Justice for Zainab and hundreds of other children who have been victimised will not be served until we make Pakistan a safe place for children. Only by proactively improving the systems of care, support and protection around the child and his/her family, we might be able to stop children from becoming just another headline.