Pakistan is one of those unfortunate countries where hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five years die each year. Only those of our children who are lucky reach the fifth grade; and almost half of the children are underweight. More than ten million children work in Pakistan in the age group 10-18 years alone.
The situation in the province of Sindh is no better if not worst in certain respect. This is despite the fact that there is increasing awareness about the issue of child rights amongst at least the law-makers in the province but we are unfortunately not seeing a change on the ground.
When the Committee on the Rights of the Child, entrusted with the task to monitor states compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, asked the government of Pakistan to indicate what proportion of the national, federal and provincial budget, is allocated to social expenditure for children, namely in light of the ‘first call for children’, Pakistan had nothing to say except that “Federal and Provincial budgets presently do not indicate separately the amounts allocated for children.”
Despite ratifying the convention in 1990, we have been unable to delineate clearly as to how much we spend for our children. When the same committee asked the government about the share of international assistance devoted to the implementation of the CRC, the government came up with the lame excuse that “presently there are no separate indicators showing amounts of international assistance that are devoted to implementation of CRC in the country.” The situation in this respect is no different.
How can we ever implement the rights of children when we don’t even know how much we are currently spending on them? And is this that difficult to ascertain?
Sindh was lucky to enact one of Pakistan’s first laws relating to the subject of child rights: the Sindh Children’s Act was passed in 1955 but the notification to enforce it was issued only in 1974. Despite such a long time having passed, the law has yet to be enforced. The law deals with subjects like begging, prostitution, and establishment of special homes for children. Nothing concrete has been done on it though. Way back in 1955 there was talk about the establishment of juvenile courts in the province which has not been done to date – despite there being a federal law, the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, that also deals with this subject.
A mechanism of the establishment of certified and industrial schools and remand homes was devised but not implemented. Homes for destitute and neglected children were to be setup, and inspectors and probation officers were to be appointed. No step was taken in this respect as well. This shows the lack of interest of the ruling elite in the plight of powerless children who have no political voice and cannot vote.
The Child Protection Authority Act was passed in 2011 and dealt with the appointment of the Sindh Child Protection Authority which was meant to act as a policymaking and monitoring body on all issues relating to child rights. The authority was notified after a delay of a few years but is lying dormant and has not been able to accomplish much. Committees, advisors and child protection officers were to be appointed under it; that too has not been done.
The Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2013 was passed to replace the 2001 Sindh Compulsory Primary Education Ordinance which was never implemented. Unfortunately, no concrete steps have been taken to get the 2013 law enforced either. This law has the potential to bring about a positive change as it talks of providing free and compulsory education to all children in Sindh – regardless of sex or race – up to the age of 16 years. However, unfortunately the Education Advisory Council under it has not been notified and any curriculum to be adopted under it has yet to be introduced.
In March this year, the Sindh Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Act was passed. This law is really commendable and is the first of its kind in the country. It says that a child has the right to be shown respect for his or her personality and individuality and shall not be made subject to corporal punishment or any other humiliating or degrading treatment. Contravention is punishable under the provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Similarly, Sindh is Pakistan’s only province that has introduced a uniform age for marriage for both the sexes, namely 18 years by the enactment of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013.
Child labour is a major problem in the province, like other regions of the country, due to poverty. There are several laws, such as the Factories Act 1934, the Shops and Establishments Ordinance 1969 and the Mines Act 1923, dealing with the subject both at the federal and provincial levels. However, almost all of these laws deal with the issue in the formal sector and fail to cover the informal one where the bulk of child labour is, particularly in the rural areas and in sectors such as children employed in our homes and those who are self-employed. Recently, the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act which repealed the federal Employment of Children Act but basically is its replica and leaves lot to be desired. The law interestingly retains the minimum age of employment as 14 years which conflicts with the age for provision of free and compulsory education to all children in the province; this is yet another reflection of the lack of coordination amongst various provincial departments.
The above shows that some mechanism exists in the province to handle most of the aspects relating to child rights, although they leave lot to be desired. However, not a single of these laws are being implemented. Blaming the governments and our rulers will unfavourably get us nowhere. We all should endeavour to bring about a change. A cultural change is required: and success depends on whole societies and not just the government. We all should understand and participate in actions that promote and protect child rights. This is not an impossible task and can be achieved through mass media, local organisations, and other instruments for getting new information and values into local communities and households.
The strategy can be social mobilisation involving the participation of both governmental and non-governmental elements. The way a society treats its children reflects not only its qualities of compassion and protective caring but also its sense of justice, its commitment to the future and its urge to enhance the human condition for coming generations.
The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court