ISLAMABAD: The alarming rise in reported incidents of child sexual abuse and child marriage cases in Pakistan is an urgent call to action for politicians, media personnel and civil society members to collectively work towards punitive and preventative measures that tackle the challenge of child abuse, stated participants at Jinnah Institute’s Roundtable on 29th May 2019 titled ‘Protecting Our Children: Supportive Legislative and Civil Society Action’, moderated by Salman Zaidi.
MNA Mehnaz Akbar Aziz highlighted relevant legislation tabled in the National Assembly, including her own bill titled Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act 2019 and the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 2019, both pending review by a standing committee. She stated that legislators often face an uphill task in finding support in parliament for human rights related legislation, and backing from civil society groups and media can generate critical pressure for policy reform, as well as hold governments and state institutions accountable for inaction. The Farishta Mohmand case has made clear how inadequate our responses are in the event of a crisis. She recommended that a special committee for child protection be constituted in the National Assembly that can review and assist such cases. In addition, the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus may be used as a platform to further the gender and child rights agenda. She requested media persons to publish news articles and disseminate information on child rights challenges to create awareness and assist preventive action.
Human rights activist, Tahira Abdullah stressed on the need to be clear on the definition of a child. She stated that Pakistan has long been a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Child that sets the age of a child at 18 years. Pakistan has omitted this in its own legislative frameworks, resulting in a lack of laws that criminalize child marriage, child labour or domestic work, and provide little protection from sexual abuse for those under the age of 18. She agreed that legislation plays an important role human rights’ interventions, but the work of lawmakers and civil society does not end there. Legislation is only the first step in creating visible and sustainable change, and it falls to stakeholders to implement those laws to impact change on ground. She underscored that a National Commission on Child Rights had to be set up in 2017 – following the Zainab Ansari case – but two years have passed since and the Commission has been mired in politics and indolence on the part of provincial governments in nominating members and creating rules.
Child rights activist Valerie Khan stated that the government was treading dangerous territory vis a vis declaring the death penalty as a punishment for child abuse. She underscored that it leads to desensitization of people towards loss of life. Since the hanging of Zainab Ansari’s rapist and killer in November 2018, the number of cases reported had gone up by thirteen per cent. The problem must be addressed at the grass root level through lobbying for child rights and by conducting a national awareness campaign with the aid of media and political parties that utilise sources from Islamic jurisprudence.
Senator Meher Taj Roghani stated that the issue of child sexual abuse and child marriage is a veritable public health crisis, rarely described in those terms. Children’s health is subjected to severe danger when they are forced into marriages and made to give birth much before they turn 18. This results in high maternal and infant mortality rates, miscarriages and malnutrition. Senator Roghani concluded that interventions must seriously consider healthcare as a reason for raising the marriage age to 18.
Media persons participating in the discussion stated that mainstreaming a policy issue like child abuse on talk shows required assistance from politicians. Unfortunately, topics that garner television ratings are the ones taken up by media houses, and one way to gather strength around such a crucial topic was for senior politicians themselves to initiate public discourse on the issue. The role of electronic media in raising awareness is more important as it can penetrate all levels of society where information is being consumed. If civil society organizations can provide curated information to media persons, a sustained campaign on child rights can be undertaken that assists legislative reform and audit of government action.