Why are we poor?
July 5, 2022
Unlocking the door to progress
July 16, 2022

Three critical child protection reforms

The kidnap, marriage and sexual abuse of an underage girl Dua Zehra is a crime that leaves deep scars on the conscience of every thinking Pakistani. Sadly it happened with the active connivance of state institutions. Thousands of under-age girls are married off in broad daylight with the help of fake documents, unethical ‘nikah khwans’ and courts that do not believe in CNIC cards. Likewise millions of children are unabashedly and publicly abused every day in Pakistan. They can be routinely spotted begging on streets, enslaved as domestic servants, toiling as industrial labour or being abused in schools and Madrassas. No one reports these events. The state institutions look the other way and reluctantly act only when an extreme event of abuse comes into public knowledge. Despite a plethora of child protection commissions, authorities, bureaus, child protection officers, committees and Helplines, we have not succeeded in bringing even the slightest improvement in our child protection system.

Pakistan ought to begin by introducing a law on ‘duty to report’ . Currently, the police, professionals and citizens of Pakistan have no obligation to report an incident of child abuse. 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 protection laws. Anyone who observes, knows or suspects occurrence of child abuse or neglect at any location, ought to be obligated to immediately report the same to police or the local Child Protection Agency.

A 2013 UNFPA report suggests that one in three girls in Pakistan is married before reaching the age of 18. The current child marriage restraint laws are inadequate, full of loopholes and differ from province to province. The Child Marriage Act and the Rules ought to be made foolproof, simplified and uniform across Pakistan. It must be mandatory for the bride and the groom to be above the age of 18 and in possession of valid CNIC cards. The two of them should be required to visit the nearest Union Council / Cantonment Board to register the marriage by undergoing biometric tests to confirm that they are adults and the CNICs belong to the same individuals. (If people are happy to undergo a biometric test for buying a telephone SIM, certainly they should have no objection in doing the same for marriage.) A NADRA Certificate of Marriage downloadable from NADRA’s website should be the only acceptable evidence of marriage in Pakistan. We could have prevented the fraudulent marriages of thousands of ’Duas’ and ‘Arzoos’, had we followed this procedure.

The missing link in the child protection chain is the absence of defined roles and linkages between various functionaries. Child Protection Agencies ought be explicitly responsible for receiving and investigating reports of possible child abuse, gaining physical access of an abused or neglected child, providing immediate physical, medical or emotional support, helping families who need assistance and arranging for children to live with kin or in state shelters, when not safe at home.

It ought to be mandatory for police to respond to any observed, suspected or reported case of child abuse by reaching the place of incident, informing the child protection officer, providing protection to child till the arrival of child protection officer, investigating for possible drugs, handlers, offenders or any one who may have committed a crime, formally recording an FIR and supporting the Child Protection Agency where required.

The current, largely ceremonial child protection organizations need to be well staffed at each district level with 4 to 6 trained child protection officers having well-established linkages with hospitals, councilors, shelters, police and magistrates. None of the above initiatives call for help or funding from any foreign agency. Only our own initiatives and thoughts can create processes that are supportive and safe for our children.
Naeem Sadiq