BY taking suo motu notice of the grave violence against three little girls, two allegedly tortured by their employers and the third raped, badly wounded and thrown in a drain, the chief justice of Pakistan has provided an opportunity to take a critical look at the utterly unbearable lot of the country’s children.
Thousands of children, if not hundreds of thousands, most of them girls, are subjected to violence each year, and in many cases the culprits go scot-free because they have an unholy alliance with the law-enforcement personnel.
To see how big this problem is, we may glance through the newspapers published during the first 21 days of the new year.
Politicians have to answer for their failure to come up with proper laws to prevent violence against children.
During these 21 days, 26 cases of violence against children were reported in Lahore newspapers. Twenty of them were reported from Punjab (seven from Lahore alone), three from Islamabad, two from Sindh (Karachi), one from KP (Swat), and none from Balochistan.
The victims were 19 girls and seven boys. Five of the victims were aged 14-15 years, while a majority were five- to 13-years-old. Thirteen of the victims had been raped, three were killed and five were found dead in their employers’ homes or elsewhere. In two cases only, the police were pursuing the matter, in one case they refused to register an FIR and in three cases the parents were reported to have accepted a compromise.
A report said many children employed as domestic help were tortured after being accused of theft. Amnesty International says 35 per cent of children in domestic employment in Pakistan are subjected to violence. Lahore district tops the list with the largest number of incidents. Islamabad comes second.
These cases must not be dismissed as routine or unavoidable crime, as is sometimes done; they reveal a horrible cycle of violence that keeps growing because it is not punished and because a number of state and non-state institutions have been failing in their duty towards children. It is a grave national issue. In the child-majority country that Pakistan is the exploitation of children means violation of the rights of the majority.
The causes of large-scale violence against children can easily be summed up: extreme poverty drives parents without resources to live off the labour of their little ones; the feudal culture of keeping slaves described as domestic servants has not died; the state has failed to count the children in domestic service; women and girls are not only treated as chattel, they are also considered fair game for sadists and sex fiends; the lack of sex education for children and youth and the existence of a horde of men who have no legitimate and inexpensive means to satisfy their urge for sex goes unnoticed; the price demanded for brides in many parts of the country is high; policemen do not appreciate women’s/girls’ rights; and the cult of violence has seized the entire country.
The institutions contributing to this totally unacceptable state of affairs are also the ones that can provide remedies and thus they may be identified while possibilities of remedial action are discussed.
Lawmakers have to answer for their failure to come up with proper legislation to prevent violence against children and to punish the culprits. Many months have elapsed since the Senate adopted a bill designed to deal with child abuse and to provide for tougher punishments. The bill has been lying unattended in the National Assembly. Does it not reflect on the lawmakers’ lack of concern for the life and health of children? The recent storm has perhaps spurred the government to draft a law on violence against children for the federal capital and one hopes that the proposed legislation will be adequate and comprehensive.
The law-enforcement agencies can fight against child abuse by including their personnel’s sensitisation to children’s right to life and dignity of person in their training courses. The subordinate staff also needs to give up their belief that women’s/girls’ demand for action against violence and other forms of abuse amounts to rebellion against their lords. They should refuse to be parties to agreements for hushing up criminal cases even if the parents/families of victims can be persuaded by them or the culprits to forego their right to justice, for nobody can opt out of his/her legal entitlements.
The state must learn to honour its obligations under the international treaties that it has signed. It has been ignoring the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child not caring to keep the pledges made to it, nor has it made a serious attempt to implement the 2012 Universal Periodic Review recommendations regarding children. (The large number of promises the government has made to international organisations cannot be accommodated in the space available. We will deal exclusively with them on some other occasion.)
The Council of Islamic Ideology and the ulema need to realise their duty to prevent violence against children. They should help their pupils and other youth accept the rights of women and girls to freedom from torture and abuse. They may also ponder over whether their support of violence by religious militants or reluctance to condemn it or opposition to the abolition of corporal punishment fuels violence against children as these attitudes do sanctify violence in general. They must also review their opposition to curbs on child marriage because if girls aged seven or eight can be given away in marriage to a man of any age the pervert and the criminal in society will recognise no bar to ravaging them.
Finally, the community must do some soul-searching. It must realise that its failure to treat outrage as an outrage and to react to child abuse with the kind of rage that such foul deeds warrant has done not a little to make children’s freedom from violence impossible.