Eliminating child marriages
March 27, 2022
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April 30, 2022
Child abuse — a ‘duty to report’
Millions of children are deliberately, unabashedly and publicly abused every day in Pakistan. They can be spotted begging on streets, enslaved as domestic servants or toiling as industrial labour. They are routinely abused in schools and Madrassas. They are forced to collect garbage or work as helpers in workshops, hotels, mines and kilns. All this is accepted as fait accompli. Some even justify how the poor are benefitted by this torture and slavery. The existing plethora of child protection commissions, authorities, bureaus and ministries have little to contribute beyond speeches, seminars and selfies.
The first step in creating an effective child protection system is to make it simple, practical and accountable. Instead of numerous ceremonial and advisory organisations, every city municipality ought to have a Child Welfare Agency with legal responsibility for investigating all reports of child abuse and taking appropriate protective actions. These agencies ought to be approachable by the public around the clock every day of the year. Grouped together, these agencies become the provincial and national child welfare system.
Pakistan could have a sea change impact on child protection by declaring that the police, professionals and citizens have a mandatory ‘duty to report’ any instance of child abuse and neglect. This would indeed require a change in existing child welfare laws. Anyone who observes, knows or suspects occurrence of child abuse or neglect at any location is obligated to immediately report the same to the local Child Welfare Agency.
The role of Child Welfare Agencies needs to be clearly defined to include tasks such as: a) receiving and investigating reports of possible child abuse; b) providing immediate physical, medical or emotional support to an abused or neglected child; c) providing support services to families who need assistance in the protection and care of their children; and, d) arranging for children to live with kin, foster families, or state shelters, when they are not safe at home.
While the proposed Child Welfare Agencies operate at municipal/provincial level, some degree of monitoring, coordinating, reporting and data collection ought to be performed at the national level. The mandate of Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA) already includes some of these functions. They however need to be more explicitly defined for processes such as a single national emergency Helpline and a national child abuse database.
The role of police has traditionally been that of a bystander. Often the police and the child beggars can be seen performing the same function at the same intersection. The new proposal makes it mandatory for all to report every observed or suspected abuse to the Child Welfare Agency. The police however have the additional responsibility to protect the child till the arrival of the Child Welfare Officer and to investigate and act against the offenders/ handlers/ employers or families in case a crime has been committed.
What exactly is a ‘reportable’ incident of child abuse needs to be explicitly defined and extensively publicised. ‘Duty to report’ must be declared obligatory in situations where: a) a child is found begging on streets or abandoned; b) a less than 18 year old person is found working in any industrial or commercial establishment; c) a child is employed as domestic help; and, d) child abuse observed at any domestic, public or institutional location and when there is evidence of child marriage (below the age of 18).
Child abuse is heavily fueled by poverty and overpopulation. Institutional misgovernance and societal apathy add fuel to the fire. No child protection system can deliver without addressing these two conditions. The last 74 years have not seen any letup in our exploitation and cruelty towards children. The next 74 years are not likely to be any better. A ‘duty to report’ system along with a ‘duty to support’ by the state can radically transform this perennial dysfunctionality. It is time for sane people to come together and talk.
Naeem Sadiq
Dr. Kishwar Enam
Shimaila Matri Dawood