April issue 2015

By | Society | Published 5 years ago

2014 wasn’t a great year for children in Pakistan. It began with the death of Aitzaz Hasan on January 6, after he confronted a suicide bomber whose target was Hasan’s school. It drew to a close with the deadly massacre of 134 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar, on December 16. And according to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report, between January and December, 78 other children were killed by stray bullets, in bomb blasts, and after being kidnapped and sexually assaulted.

Though many children have been injured and killed in the cross-hairs of terrorism in Pakistan, according to Sahil, an organisation that offers legal aid, rehabilitation and raises awareness about the victims of child abuse, even more children are sexually assaulted each year. Its ‘Cruel Numbers’ report shows that 3,002 children were abused in 2013 — up from 2,788 in 2012. Furthermore, Anees Jillani, who founded the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) 22 years ago, believes child marriage is probably even more prevalent now, given that currently more than 50 per cent of Pakistani girls under the age of 18 are married (statistics endorsed by UNICEF).

There are several organisations working for the rights of children vulnerable to abuse in Pakistan. And there seems to be a consensus on the root cause of the problem. “Rights violations start at home,” says Rana Asif Habib, founder of the Initiator Human Development Foundation (IHDF), established in 1997 and working specifically for the rehabilitation of homeless children. Naveed H Khan, the founder of Azad Foundation, which also works with street children and mentored Pakistan’s street child football team last April, agrees. “In Pakistan, the main reason children run away from home is violent behaviour. If it’s not directly towards the child, then it’s between the parents, and the child wants to get out of that situation,” he says. Once out on the street, children are sexually assaulted, get caught up in drug abuse, and are inducted into gangs and begging mafias.

But how to tackle the problem remains a contentious issue. Habib believes government apathy — specifically the lack of legislation and its impracticality — is the main reason behind the soaring figures for child abuse in Pakistan. “We need to institute a child protection policy on a provincial and national level,” he says. Although there are laws concerning various aspects of child abuse in Pakistan, the federal government lacks an overarching policy outlining a concrete objective on child protection. In 2006, the National Plan of Action for Children was drafted, “the ultimate target” of which was “to protect children from all forms of exploitation by the year 2015.” In January 2012, according to the UN, the government was in the process of finalising a draft on the National Commission on the Rights of Children, which the Federal Ombudsman, Salman Farooqi, mentioned again in November last year.  But the policy has not been finalised and has not resulted in any legislation to date.

Habib says instituting a policy and then drafting laws based on it is not at all difficult. “Look how the government reacted to the Peshawar attacks, instituting a policy on hangings in just three days. So it is possible. It just shows that children are of no value to the government. Because they can’t vote, they aren’t given any importance.” And when the government has been proactive, the steps taken have not always been practical. In 2009, a Children’s Complaint Office for victims of child abuse was set up at the Sindh Ombudsman’s Secretariat. “But it was useless,” Habib says. “Firstly, it is impossible for a child to get to the office by himself. And then to get inside one has to show an ID at four separate checkpoints, besides getting past all the security.” Jillani shares the same opinion. “The government is of no help whatsoever,” he says. “It comes into action when a case is reported on the electronic media and then forgets about it.”

In Pakistan, approximately 5.5 million children are out of school, while 1.5 million live on the streets. But the number of children without citizenship far outstrips both figures. According to Habib, 70 per cent of births in the country remain unregistered. And this is a fundamental problem because “no birth certificate means no rights or recognition.” In order to get a birth certificate one has to pay assorted fees at the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) office and at the cantonment board and municipal council levels. So even though parents may know the importance of getting their child registered, they often do not have the money to pay for it. The system is also not user-friendly, and those who cannot read or write find it difficult to understand the procedure.

Naveed Khan, however, completely dismisses the importance of legislation. “Child abuse is not a legal problem,” he asserts. “There is already lots of legislation. Corporal punishment, for example, is not allowed in many schools and yet it is used.” The problem with legislation is its implementation. “Even if you legislate against child abuse, how can anyone stop the violence in homes? People say you are interfering in their personal matters,” he says, citing the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children’s Act 2002. According to the act, the police have the right to bring to court street children and their families, make the guardians aware of this law and warn them that their child should not be found on the street again. “But more than 50 per cent of the children are back on the street within a few days.” The 1955 Sindh Children’s Act has the same provision.  But the legislation has not made much of a dent in the street child population in either province, nor in the violence perpetrated against them. Moreover, the police, according to Jillani, are not adequately trained to deal with victims of child abuse.

Azad Foundation, therefore, approaches parents, teachers and the police directly, educating them about children’s rights and their psychological development, specifically asking parents to give more attention to their children. According to Khan, “this attitude alone solves half the problem.” In fact, says Mohsina Abidi who is a programme officer and psychologist at Azad Foundation, “emotional and mental abuse affects children much more than physical abuse.” According to Sameera Qureshi who is a research officer at Sahil, parental neglect is one of the main categories of child abuse, surprisingly, almost as prevalent as sexual assault.

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Talking about corporal punishment in madrassahs and many public schools, Abidi says teachers, like most parents and the police, are not trained to deal with problematic children. “Unfortunately, teachers in Pakistan really exploit the profession. They want to teach because they have nothing else to do, or want to make money. They don’t know how to treat children, and vent their frustrations on them,” she says.

It is evident that most in positions of authority, especially in regard to underprivileged children, have little understanding of how to interact with them. But a lot of the legislation regarding child abuse in Pakistan gives responsibility to guardians. For example, there is no national or provincial hotline (like 911 in the US) that children can call — themselves — if they are abused. It is expected, like in the Children’s Complaint Office, that guardians will lodge the complaint. But Sahil’s statistics for 2013 show that in many cases the perpetrators of child abuse are relatives and acquaintances of the children.

Habib believes the absence of a direct link between children and the organisations providing assistance is a major problem.  But it is questionable how much of a difference this amenity will make, considering that in Pakistan most children are scared to report cases of abuse, and there is a “a culture of not reporting such incidents,” according to Jillani.

“Greed,” in the words of Habib, is another reason why guardians cannot be relied upon. Bonded labour in Pakistan is flourishing mainly due to the greed of parents. Both Habib and Khan say that in most cases, children are loaned to relatives by their own family for the purpose of labour in return for an agreed-upon sum, often for up to a year. The children usually work as garbage pickers on streets or as domestic help in homes. Of the payment that is agreed upon, a small percentage goes to the commission agent while the rest is taken by the parents.

Shafqat Hussain’s case — the 24-year-old on death row who recently grabbed the media’s attention for his allegedly wrongful conviction — is another example of this greed. Habib, who represented Hussain at the High Court, says that his age was wrongly recorded as 26 years when the FIR was made in 2004, whereas he was only 14 years old at the time. “There are so many children languishing in jails right now whose ages have been incorrectly recorded as several years older than they actually are, and there is nothing we can do about this because officials are bribed into doing it. Twenty thousand rupees is all it takes,” he says.

In recent years, increased media coverage of violence against children has increased awareness among the general public. In fact, the media and social media played a significant role in raising awareness about and helping to delay Shafqat Hussain’s trial. But even the figures we have today barely scratch the surface. “We don’t hear about incidents that take place in the tribal areas of FATA and interior Balochistan, for example,” Habib says, as thousands of abused, hurt children are doomed to continue suffering under the radar.

 

This article was originally published in Newsline’s April  2015 issue.

Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline