Seven decades of noticeably worsening record of child abuse ought to have convinced us to either reform or replace our dysfunctional child protection system. We did not opt for either. The state and the equally indifferent civil society did not travel an inch beyond the hollow expressions of ‘concern’, ‘resolve’, ‘pain’ and ‘promises’. The state has failed to create child protection systems to eliminate abuse, that stretches from malnourished stunted children at one end to the tortured, raped and killed at the other. While the state should be held accountable and pressured to meet its obligations, should we as citizens and parents not ponder on what are our other options.
Among the most robust and widely used child protection mechanisms are the community-based child protection organisations. They underscore the fact that a family and a community are the first line of protection for a child. They assume a special significance in settings such as Pakistan, where other child protection services and systems are weak or non-existent. Often called ‘child protection’ or ‘child welfare’ committees, the community-based child protection groups are a vital component of the broader national child protection system. They complement each other and work in close coordination.
Community-based child protection systems operate in more than sixty countries. With a hugely ineffective state operated child protection system, Pakistan is an ideal candidate for community-based child protection organisations, which can be established in every village and urban neighbourhood. Built largely on voluntary basis, the community-based child protection committees (CPCs) may be the fastest and the least-cost method of creating a grass-root child protection system in Pakistan. CPCs do not operate in isolation but maintain constant coordination with the concerned government organisations such as police, Helpline and the child protection department.
How does a community-based child protection system work? There are responsibilities and tasks performed by the CPCs and those that are undertaken by the government institutions. Typically, the government would take the initiative in defining, publicising and supporting the methodology of community-based child protection system. This can be easily done by the government, by avoiding the traditional NGO driven, foreign funded and seminar-oriented ‘awareness spreading’ route. The government prepares a guideline document for the CPCs as well as the concerned government departments on their respective roles, responsibilities and interactions.
Each Community-based child protection committee (CPC) may be a group of 6 to 16 individuals, mostly volunteers, with at least one member who is paid an honorarium by the government. Largely consisting of parents, a CPC will typically include a cross section of village elders, local government representatives, teachers, health workers, social workers and other professionals. The first task of a CPC is to create a realisation that safety, protection and wellbeing of the children is the primary responsibility of the families and the community. The CPCs meet regularly to discuss issues, incidents and solutions relating to child abuse, violence and neglect. Frequently speaking to children, parents and teachers on identifying and preventing child abuse is an important aspect of these meetings.
A CPC performs numerous tasks. It maintains an accurate record of each child (up to 18 years) who resides in that community. In case of a reported child abuse or neglect, it would immediately speak to the child and the family and suggest or take protective measures. If considered appropriate the police and the social welfare department is informed. In case of a child reported as missing, the CPC would inform the police, make announcements through local mosques and volunteers, inform national helpline and organise a local investigation and search by community volunteers. It is the police that reaches out to the community (and not the other way around), records FIR and concurrently begins its own investigation process.
External help, in terms of training and capacity building, may be necessary in the beginning to push-start the CPCs. The CPCs monitor, act as watchdogs and identify vulnerable children and families. As the trust develops, the CPCs can begin to work on a range of child abuse and neglect issues such as child labour, sexual abuse within family, early marriage, beggary, out of school children and violence in schools. An effective CPC would be the one where children and parents feel safe to report incidents of child abuse, which can provide response and rehabilitation support, and whose actions are determined by the best interests of the child.