Pakistan likes to see itself as a bastion of family values, but this is in large part an illusion — or more properly, a self-deception. Women and children are vulnerable and at risk at every point on the family spectrum. Rape and the sexual abuse of children are reported almost daily across the country. A recent report spoke of the complete absence of a successful prosecution for rape anywhere in the country. Children work in brick kilns from almost as soon as they can walk or carry a load. Women continue to give birth unattended and maternal health in the rural populations is generally poor. Dedicated resources for the protection of children are thinly scattered and scarce to begin with. All of the above is true to a greater or lesser extent but there are brighter spots and Punjab is one of them.
There is, at least, a basic child protection service across Punjab that is backed up by provincial legislation in most large towns and cities. These offices are staffed by trained social workers. In south Punjab, there is a newly built child-protection complex at Rahim Yar Khan and another due to be built in Bahawalpur. These services are going to be further strengthened and improved if a recently agreed action plan goes to fruition. Eleven members of the Punjab Assembly and a range of government officials on July 8 have agreed on an action plan for the protection of child rights and the regulation of child labour and its associated abuses. The plan was formulated over a three-day workshop organised by the Child Rights Movement (CRM) Punjab.
The basic vision is to create a caucus of MPAs within the Punjab Assembly, which would seek to create a broad Punjab Child Protection Policy to be ‘owned’ by the provincial cabinet, which would have the leverage to raise — and keep raising — issues relating to child protection. Ultimately, the goal is the establishment of the Punjab Commission on the Rights of the Child through an act of the provincial assembly.
This is an important move in the right direction for a number of reasons. Perhaps, most importantly, it is the start of what promises to be a holistic rather than a piecemeal approach to child protection, and moreover one that appears to have cross-party support as well as the support and cooperation of the bureaucracy, vital for the success of any move such as this. Secondly, it is going to be able to build on preexisting structures. There are already women health workers scattered across Punjab doing sterling work for little pay or recognition. There are community midwives and Trained Birth Attendants — but not enough of either and the members of the working group are agreed that at least 15,000 more community midwives were needed in rural areas — a formidable challenge in terms of recruitment and resourcing.
Ranging further, the group took in the implementation of the Punjab Protection of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition (Amendment) Act of 2012; and the implementation of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000 to include the appointment of probation officers.
The protection of children — and their mothers — is a complex and multi-dimensional task that crosses a range of agency boundaries and requires some sophisticated joined-up thinking if it is to be addressed adequately. The child protection structures and agencies that we see in developed countries took sometimes hundreds of years to grow, and for legislation to be enacted and implemented, and there are no quick fixes. What we find heartening about the recent moot of those concerned for the development of child protection services is that they were prepared to do some out-of-the-envelope thinking, and that key agencies, both governmental and civil, were all in the same place and reading off the same page. Child protection does not come free either and budgets will have to be committed. This initiative is going to need to be nurtured and protected as carefully as any child, and we wish it both health and prosperity.