Tuesday July 23, 2024

Protecting our children

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
October 03, 2023

I have lately been focusing on human rights issues in these pages. Those interested can refer to my previous articles: ‘Children’s rights matter’ (Sept 18), ‘Challenge child labour’ (Aug 28), ‘The rise of an intolerant society’ (Aug 20), ‘Fighting disability with creativity’ (Aug 15), ‘A broken workforce’ (July 3), ‘Human rights on the agenda’ (June 19) and ‘Reconceptualization of labour issues’ (May 14).

Here I will focus on child protection to see what has been happening on this front. Several reports suggest that the government of Sindh with support from Unicef has been quite active on this front with varying degrees of success.

But first it is important to look at the legal framework that has been put in place for children. It is worth recalling that Sindh was the first province after Independence that enacted the Sind Children Act 1955 (before the 18th Amendment, Sind was the official spelling of the province) in July, weeks before the provinces in West Pakistan merged into a one-unit scheme.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, there were two important laws related to children in Sindh. The Bombay Children Act 1924 and the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act 1933. There were also laws setting the minimum age for admission to work, as under the Mines Act 1923 the minimum age for work was set at 15 years. The Factories Act 1934 set it at 14 years.

Before 1936, Sindh was part of the Bombay presidency and the laws the Bombay legislature passed were applicable in Sindh. After the separation of Sindh from Bombay, the same laws continued in the new province with the same nomenclature.

Interestingly, the 1933 Act was extended to the Federated Areas of Baluchistan (before the 18th Amendment, Baluchistan was the official spelling of the province) in 1937, to the Leased Areas of Balochistan in 1950, and to the Baluchistan States Union in 1953.

The same year, the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act 1933 also extended to Khairpur in Sindh and the State of Bahawalpur. With the passage of the Sind Children Act 1955, the Sindh government also repealed the Bombay Children Act of 1924 through which the court had powers to commit an offender to prison.

Under the 1955 Act, the court had to order the offender to be kept in safe custody in such place or manner as it thought fit and had to report the case for the order of the provincial government. Under the 1955 Act, provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1898 became applicable to the trial of cases and conduct of proceedings under this Act, unless expressly provided otherwise.

The same Act of 1955 also stipulated that a juvenile court had discretion to commit uncontrollable children to certified schools or to a fit person or to any institution.

Part VI of the Act made special offences in respect of children cognizable and made provisions for bail for youthful offenders; it also eliminated joint trial of a juvenile with an adult. The Sindh government, before its dissolution in 1955, also made provisions in the Act to prevent exploitation of children for ulterior ends. The Act provided for repatriation of youthful offenders to their provinces of origin on their own bonds and eliminated canning as a sentence that was part of the repealed Act of 1924.

The Road Transport Workers Ordinance, 1961 set the minimum age to work in the road transport sector at 18 years. Then in 1969, the Shops and Establishment Ordinance and its provincial variants enacted in Sindh and NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) set the minimum age to work in shops and establishments at just 14 years. Unfortunately, the one-unit government never implemented the Act of 1955 that the Sindh government passed, and it took nearly two decades before the PPP government in 1974 actually implemented it in Sindh.

Sindh enacted one of the first laws that dealt with children’s rights in 1955, but the one-unit government of West Pakistan from 1955 to 1970 never issued the notification to enforce it. Even though the Gen Yahya government dissolved the one-unit system, it became too occupied in subjugating the freedom struggle of the people of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The ZA Bhutto government issued the notification to enforce the 1955 Act, but no government since then has fully enforced it, for example to eliminate begging and prostitution among children and young adults.

In 1984 the then government repealed Section 14 to allow lawyers to defend a juvenile offender. Under the first Benazir Bhutto government, Pakistan signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child in 1989 and ratified in 1990.

In the 21st century, the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, 2011 was the first landmark law to safeguard children’s rights. Then in 2013 another three major pieces of legislation passed through the Sindh Assembly: the Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, and Sindh Protection and Promotion of Breast Feeding Act, 2013.

After the 18th Amendment, provincial governments had the responsibility to protect children and take every possible initiative to carry out this obligation. After the creation of the Sindh Child Protection Authority (SCPA) to facilitate cases of abuse and violence against children, initially three child protection units (CPUs) surfaced in Hyderabad, Karachi, and Sukkur. Then the number increased to 15 CPUs by 2015, in collaboration with the Social Welfare Department and Unicef, which played a significant role in this matter.

Unfortunately, it took the SCPA five years after its creation to have its rules of business (RoBs). After initially showing a sluggish performance, the SCBA became fully operational across the province in 2017 when all the 29 districts had their CPUs. Then in 2018, district coordination committees (DCCs) under the supervision of deputy commissioners came into being with active involvement of stakeholders who discuss the child protection situation on a monthly basis.

Now the good news is that in September this year, Unicef, with Oxford policy management (OPM), concluded a series of capacity development workshops for child protection staff of the Sindh government and related organizations.

The aim is to strengthen the child protection system and to effectively manage and run the Sindh child helpline that must be available round the clock to children in distress. Ideally much more should have been done, but the fact is that children are already seeking help from all the districts in Sindh by calling the helpline, and the case management and referral system that Unicef facilitated is already connecting survivors and victims of child abuse to service providers. There is a need to enhance the capacity of the management information system for record keeping of child protection cases.

At the moment, full, reliable, and up-to-date data is not available. Finally, I must mention a couple of more laws that have transformed the legal landscape in terms of child protection in Sindh at least theoretically. These are: the Sindh Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Act 2016, Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2017, and Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act 2018.

In 2021, the PPP government also improved the SCPA Act 2011 with the SCPA (Amendment Act) 2021 with much clearer definitions and specification of the SCPA composition.

Now the SCPA can take suo-motu action on cases of abduction, rape, murder, or any other kind of assault against children. The police have no excuse against lodging the case of children who fall prey to different kinds of violence.

“It will be mandatory for police or any law-enforcement agency to lodge [an] FIR on receipt of a complaint by any person or child protection authority representative. The failure or non-registration of [an] FIR by police will result in punishment against the cops.”

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: