Legislation Alone Cannot Protect Pakistan’s Children
January 17, 2018
The murder and rape of seven-year-old Zainab Amin, whose body was found on a heap of garbage a short walk from her home in Kasur, Pakistan, has resulted in thousands of people taking to the streets in fury, demanding justice. The outpouring of anger resulted in violent clashes that left two dead. Police on Saturday released a sketch of the suspect, but so far the culprit has not been arrested.
Before Zainab, at least 11 other children have been reported over the last few years to have been victims of similar assaults within a two-kilometer radius. None of the perpetrators have been identified.
In 2015, widespread protests broke out following media reports of an organized gang in Kasur accused of sexually exploiting and filming approximately 300 children. A year later, with the Kasur incident still fresh in the minds of many, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2016. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, this Act introduced the offences of child sexual abuse and child pornography into legislation by inserting sections 292-B and 377-A to the Pakistan Penal Code of 1860. Under the new clauses, these offences are both non-compoundable (i.e., charges cannot be dropped under a compromise), non-bailable, and punishable with prison sentences up to seven years, and/or fines up to 500,000 rupees.
Despite this, almost all of those accused in the Kasur case of 2015 have since been acquitted. Reports of alleged witness intimidation are often cited as among the reasons for their acquittal. Social taboos and destructive notions of honor in Pakistan that prevent families from coming forward and getting embroiled in the social implications further perpetuate a lack of justice.
Since the introduction of the legislation in 2016, there has in fact been an increase in the number of child abuse cases reported daily—independent research estimates that 11 cases are reported each day in Pakistan. However, despite the rise in the number of cases being reported, it’s clear that legislation on paper, independent of effective implementation and provisioning of services, simply provides a “semblance” of safety. This alone cannot protect our children.
The Punjab Government has taken steps to improve public safety over the past few years, including a new Punjab Safe City Project, institutionalizing the Dolphin Force, an elite security unit to fight street crime, introducing child protection units in majority districts of Punjab, and installing closed circuit TV cameras throughout the province. These measures have inarguably helped to provide the illusion of safety from a visual standpoint. However, these measures have not reduced the number of child abuse cases, nor have perpetrators of these abuses been identified or appropriately sanctioned.
The responsibility of these efforts does not lie only with law enforcement agencies, but rather is a collective responsibility shared by national and provincial government agencies, including those departments responsible for human rights, women’s development, social welfare, child protection, and service provision.
With a plethora of similar cases stacking up on the desks of law enforcement and relevant government agencies, many urgent questions remain unanswered, and reflect the soul-searching happening across the country right now. Are the collective implementation and structural inadequacies to be blamed on insufficient budgets and the lack of resources? Or a lack of will? Are we to blame institutional indiscipline for the inability to find a balance between the letter and spirit of relevant laws? Or do these recurrent cases reflect the social and moral degeneration of our society—our collective failure to protect our children?
We can’t be certain why Zainab’s case—out of the 12 similar cases in Kasur—was the one that took media outlets and the public by storm. However, the number of families that have come forward reporting cases of abuse since Zainab’s case made the news indicate the urgency to improve responsiveness from government agencies and civilian organizations dealing with acts of violence. More importantly, it provides a tragic reminder of the sordid realities of child abuse prevalent in our society, and forces us to reassess the narrative surrounding the definition of “protection”—a narrative that must move away from the semblance of safety through legislation, to one that ensures all government and civil society institutions work together so that we do not fail our children.
Sofia Shakil is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Pakistan and Daanika Kamal and Farid Alam are senior program officer and director of Programs, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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