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July 15, 2020

Learning in safety

Opinion

July 15, 2020

It is rightly said that “the true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” Even though rights of children have been recognized 30 years ago by the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Child, which obligates every state to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, injuries, abuse and neglect, and can learn in a safe environment, yet child abuse and neglect is rampant.

Recently, four teachers of a school in Lahore have been fired on charges of sexually harassing their female students for several years. The girls mustered the courage to report their teachers’ behavior on social media. Criminal action shall in all probability be taken against those found involved. But one question that keeps coming back to haunt me is why children had to use social media to expose this obnoxious behaviour.

This was a ‘prestigious’ school. The rate of violence against children in religious schools (madressahs) is even more alarming and known to all, yet such public knowledge is ignored. In its 2019 annual report on nationwide child abuse cases, Sahil, an NGO working for the protection of children, revealed that just in that year a total of 2,846 cases of child sexual abuse were reported. “On average, 8 children are abused in Pakistan everyday”, the report stated. “Children belonging to the age group of 6 to 15 are the most vulnerable, while more boys are victimized as compared to girls”. Of the 3,722 abusers mentioned, many were teachers. The fact is that our children even in schools are not safe. What should we do about it?

I have tried to find out how many schools have a ‘child protection policy’, according to which the school must educate and train the staff, children and parents about child abuse. Unfortunately my query revealed that very few have any such policy in place, and many did not even know what it is or whether there was any such requirement!

One suggestion is that schools should have a child psychologist and implement the child protection policy on their own, but this may not be possible in most schools in Pakistan where children come from less affluent or less educated backgrounds and operate on meager resources. They cannot even afford proper buildings with adequate drinking water facilities or toilets nor do they have qualified staff. Expecting them to enforce child safety measures, without the government's strategy is impractical.

In Pakistan the responsibility, constitutionally and morally, to protect the child from physical abuse, whether at home or in school, lies squarely on the governments. Up to now our policy, when the media reports such an occurrence, is one of indignation and the desire to punish. But to me punishment alone is not the solution. Yes, those involved must be imprisoned, but we need to change the strategy from ‘dealing with the issue of child abuse after the abuse has taken place’ to ‘detecting and preventing the occurrence in time’. The focus has to be on the Prevention, Implementation and Sustainable (PIS) strategy and recognizing that any funds spent on the prevention of child abuse are not expenditures, but rather investment in our future.

To implement this strategy, the overnment will have to establish a National Child Abuse Prevention Policy (NCAPP) and ensure that the funds for all the activities designed/suggested in the NCAPP are available. The NCAPP must provide for a scheme to develop, integrate and coordinate all the relevant services relating to child welfare. Each province and district has to be on board and prepare plans at the local level for implementation. It is only thereafter that real and sustainable change can take place. I may add that the 18th Amendment does not stop the federal government from demanding compliance from the provinces. Special provision for protection of children is mandated by Article 25 of the constitution as well.

Unfortunately, there is no particular law in Pakistan that provides for safe learning in schools and allows the government to regulate and make policies to prevent child abuse in schools. Provincial assemblies need to make rules for early identification, reporting and management of child abuse and ensuring that if a school fails to report or properly manage a complaint, it would be punished. A system of inspection and monitoring to oversee the implementation of child protection laws/policies in schools would have to be part of such laws.

Finally nothing can succeed without public involvement. The powers of branding, education and information are vital for the PSI strategy’s success. The PSI strategy must include widespread dissemination of information to the public regarding child abuse and its prevention.

The mindset that open discussion on issues of sexual abuse should be discouraged or are contrary to any religion or that there is any stigma attached to the notion of being abused can only be changed through dissemination of information which is also the only way to raise awareness. The most visible abuse of children goes on everyday right before our eyes when children are reduced to begging on streets. We ignore their pain and suffering and feel helpless. In order to suppress the pangs of conscience, we dole out a few rupees, but that does not absolve us.

In the end, as said by Nelson Mandela: “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest treasure. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.” There should be no deeper shame than for any society to stand by while its children suffer in pain.

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate, former federal minister for law and former president of the SCBA.

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