Since 2012, 11th October has been marked as the International Day of the Girl. The day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.
Nearly 25 years ago, some 30,000 women and men from nearly 200 countries arrived in Beijing, China for the Fourth World Conference on Women, determined to recognise the rights of women and girls as human rights. In the years following, women pressed this agenda forward, leading global movements on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health rights to equal pay. More girls today are attending and completing school, fewer are getting married or becoming mothers.
Today, these movements have expanded. They are being organised for adolescent girls, and tackling issues like child marriage, child abuse, education inequality, gender-based violence, harassment, climate change, self-esteem, and girls’ rights to enter places of worship or public spaces during menstruation. Girls are proving they are unscripted and unstoppable.
This year, under the theme, ‘Girl Force: Unscripted and unstoppable’, UN will celebrate achievements by, with and for girls since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
While several initiatives around the world are being introduced, Pakistan is struggling in terms of preservation of the rights of young girls and women, however, efforts for improvements are also included in the country’s current agenda.
Sheena Hadi of ‘Ahung Foundation’, while citing the estimations of ‘Girls Not Brides’, another NGO, shares, “21 per cent of the girls are married off by the age of 18, which is the sixth highest rate in the world. Driving factors of such child marriages are honour codes and customary practices, gender discrimination, family honour, lack of education and economic security. Sindh is the only Pakistani province to have passed a law to set 18 as the minimum age for marriage.”
As a matter of fact, every girl has the right to education. If today a young girl is provided with books in her hands rather than marrying her off with a man double her age, our future generations will have more to rely on. Writer and former Federal Information Minister, Javed Jabbar highlights the issue of girls’ education. He informs that millions of girls are forced to sit at home once they pass the fifth grade. He tells that in Pakistan’s 70-year history, the country’s primary enrolment, however, has been increasing. “Girls’ education worldwide and in Pakistan has increased but, of course, that is not enough. There is so much to be done.”
Jabbar shares that Unicef head James Grant wrote to him to say that because of Pakistan’s leadership, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child became the fastest-ever convention adopted in the UN’s history.
Speaking about the convention, Jabbar says that it is the first document that was accepted by all the nations irrespective of jurisdictional, religious or cultural boundary.
Apart from early marriages and lack of education among children, problems associated with abuse of adolescent girls and boys is something very common in Pakistan - be it sexual, verbal, physical and mental abuse. NGO ‘Sahil’ also publishes an annual report which is referred to as ‘Cruel Numbers’ indicating how many cases of child abuse have occurred in the country. In 2017, as per the report, about 3445 cases were reported and the 2018 edition of the report indicated an alarming increase in child abuse cases.
Compared to 2017, child sexual abuse cases increased from 9 to 12 cases per day. As per the Cruel Numbers report compiled by Sahil, 2232 cases were reported from the four provinces as well as Islamabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. According to the data, 56 per cent victims were girls and 44 per cent were boys. A gang involved in the raping of children in Attock and a teacher molesting students in Mirpurkhas, all occurring in the year 2018 are just small cycles of a bigger picture which is far more damning.
Statistics indicate that 65 per cent cases were in Punjab, followed by 25 per cent in Sindh, 3 per cent in KP, 2 per cent in Balochistan and 21 cases in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
In order to cater to the issue of child abuse in Pakistan, Catwalk Event Management and Productions under the aegis of Catwalk Cares recently hosted a conference: ‘Stop Child Abuse’ (through awareness and commitment) at a local hotel in Karachi. Ms Rabiya Javeri Agha, Secretary Ministry Human Rights graced the event as the chief guest. The underlying impetus of the conference was to raise awareness and shed light on the myriad types of abuse against children and to energise the public to commit and find solutions to prevent abuse and protect girls and boys and their rights as humans.
Relevant topics that were highlighted during the conference included physical, mental and emotional violence against young girls and boys, ranging from child sexual abuse, child prostitution and trafficking, child pornography/cyber crime; child labour; child domestic violence; child marriage, bullying and corporal punishment at schools among others.
The conference included pertinent discussions and presentations related to the aforementioned topics and themes followed by Q&A sessions. A diverse assembly of prominent speakers addressed these core issues including Manizeh Bano (Executive Director of Sahil), Sheena Hadi (Ahung Foundation), Senator Javed Jabbar and Barrister/human rights, lawyer and activist Hassaan Niazi along with singer, educationist and humanitarian Shehzad Roy. In addition, proactive children’s rights advocates at the conference who were also part of the panel discussions included film and TV actors such as Ahsan Khan, Zhalay Sarhadi, Sarwat Gilani, actor-director Angeline Malik, Sheheryar Munawar, actor-producer Adnan Malik.; Rana Asif Habib (President Initiator Human Development Foundation), and Shaniera Akram (The Akram Foundation).
While shedding light on the stats of child labour, sexual abuse, education and child marriage, Secretary Ministry Human Rights, Ms Rabiya Javeri Agha, shared that the ministry has been introducing a lot of initiatives addressing child abuse but it can’t bring change alone. She stated that the problem is so deep rooted - in grass root level to the affluent level to the higher middle class - that no child is being spared from the nuisance of child abuse. She also pointed out that with pornography and dark web, the entire prime of child abuse is becoming worse day by day. “We have 22 million children out of school that is a huge number of children on streets. They are the ones who are most vulnerable to kidnapping, trafficking and sexual abuse. 12.5 million children are in child labour. We are the 6th nation which has children married off early. These are some very sad figures. Now what does the government do for child protection or child abuse? First of all, let’s take the constitution. Article 25A talks about a child’s right to education. So if 22 million children are out of school, you have actually banished the constitution of the Government of Pakistan.”
Sadly, child abuse is multifold. There is a chain of process which needs a number of measures to be taken. But, these measures are not just limited to government level or the responsibility of the Ministry of Human Rights; parents also need to unlearn what they have been preaching their kids. Parents need to be well aware today, they need to take certain things in to consideration while raising a child. While talking about measures taken by parents, Rabiya stressed, “In order to save our children, we need to educate parents. The recent incident, in which a one and a half year old girl was abused sexually and murdered in Islamabad, was that the parents sent her to the local shop to get something. Parents should understand that they can’t leave a small child out on the road alone. Secondly, parents should know that when their child is abused, where they should go for help. No need to announce it in the mosque or report it in the nearby police station as once your child’s name and pictures are submitted, it will be not less than a stigma for them or for the parents if the child dies. For such situations, the ministry has set up a number of child protection centres.”
Rabiya told that the ministry is also working on the system of protection (SOP) of children in these centres. They have implemented emergency protocols as soon as such cases are reported.
The former minister Javed Jabbar spoke about non-violent abuse, which, he said, is invisible and intangible, as it cannot be measured or calculated. “Even without violence, we can and we do abuse children.”
Singer, social worker and humanitarian Shehzad Roy also shared his two cents and the interventions it needs. “We need multiple interventions when we talk about child abuse. There are a lot of sides to it such as academic, administrative and others, but the most important is the change in mindset,” he suggested.
Roy was of the view that by just putting awareness in our school curriculum or basic tradition won’t make any difference, it is important to have strong child protection units. “My organisation and I are chiefly working on developing the child protection unit in Pakistan. Also, in 2012, Section 89 of the Pakistan Penal Code allowed the teachers to hit children in good faith until they bled. We challenged this law in 2013 at the National Assembly in which Geo also helped a lot in advocacy by telecasting the program,” he added.
Roy said that when a child is young, he is beaten up by its parents, when he goes to school he is beaten up by teachers and when he goes out to work for the society, he is beaten up by the SHO. So the culture of beating in our society has gone to that level that everybody thinks that violence is important if you want to resolve an issue. He urged it’s about time we should come together and change this mindset.
Also, he insisted on effective communication in the society. “We need to talk and be open about sharing issues such as abuse as most of us have been through some degree of abuse in our lives but we are ashamed to talk about it. We have to solve it by ourselves rather than depending on people to come and help us. Let’s just keep this debate alive.”
Dr Manizeh Bano, Executive Director of Sahil, also spoke about child sex abuse and how necessary it is for the parents to know their children. She stressed meaningful interactions between the parents and their kids. “Parents should know where their children go and what friends they have,” she emphasised.
Referring to recent cases, she said adolescents have been found to be involved in child sex abuse. Speaking about the profile of an abuser, she said that it’s not necessary that he has a big moustache. Citing foreign researches, she said, “Abusers characteristically are anti-social and angry, lack self-confidence, are very impulsive, cannot empathise, have low self-esteem, exhibit deviant sexual behaviour or are drug users. However, the abuser always has power over their victims, of position, age, physical or family strength.” Manizeh also emphasised that children should be taught not to accept gifts from others and they must not be allowed to go anywhere with anyone without asking the family.
A positive step has been taken by The Ministry of Human Rights in the form of a National Action plan. “There is a National Commission of the Rights of the Child which goes for policy development - guidance on how to move forward to the government - and we have a child protection institute. Furthermore, we are now sitting in cabinet in the parliament which is the Zainab Alert Bill to address the issues of missing children. When children are missing, there is no central data base in Pakistan unlike other countries where you have a data base and the registry of offenders. So we have also requested for that in the parliament. If this law is passed, it will set the rule for the procedure of the protocol when a child is missing,” informed Rabiya Javeri.
When we talk about child rights, it is important that the children should be present and must give their input. “We first need to think about prevention through behavioural change. We should bring the children to government offices to let them suggest what needs to be done when it comes to implementation of laws. You can’t say that you will kill the offender or get him hanged. If there is a sentence of death for a child abuse, the first thing the abuser will do is that he will kill the child. Like we see in honour killings and rape, they kill the women. So it’s just awareness and immediate action. Schools should have awareness sessions and police and media should be sensitised. Art, culture and media celebrities they all can work wonders in bringing change through social media as they have a huge following there. So awareness, working together and change of mindsets are a few steps towards combating child abuse,” suggested Rabiya.
When children have suffered abuse or neglect and cannot safely remain with their families, child welfare officials are obligated to provide them safe and appropriate homes, adequate services to ensure their well-being and resources to recover from trauma. As Mr Jabbar said that the issue of child abuse is intangible and invisible, there is a long way to go in order to fix it. Problems will not die if two or three children are protected from adverse situations. It is the need of the hour that issues such as child abuse are wiped off completely from the root. In the process, every human being has to work together and that would need a lot of work - from changing mindsets to government policies and efforts made by the Human Rights committee in Pakistan. Till then, we can only hope and spread awareness regarding the line of action we all need to acquire.