Monday August 08, 2022

Reporting child abuse

October 30, 2021

It is often said that children make ‘perfect’ victims for perpetrators. This is because they are unable to protect themselves due to their level of physical and mental development and they often do not reach out for help.

As a result, in most of the cases, perpetrators are never held accountable. A 2020 report titled ‘Cruel Numbers’ by Sahil, an NGO working on the rights of children, revealed that about 2960 cases of child abuse were reported in the newspapers from across Pakistan. Of these cases, 985 cases were sodomy, 787 cases were rape, and 89 cases were pornography – among other forms of child abuse. The report outlined that more than eight children were abused every day and that children most vulnerable to abuse belonged to the age group 6-15 years. Furthermore, the report outlined that, of the cases reported in the newspapers, only 87 percent were registered with the police.

No matter how appalling the above statistics may be, the reality is that the above report suffers from underreporting, which underestimates the scale of the problem. Missing from the report are cases that were not reported in the newspapers. There are numerous reasons why cases remain underreported. In most of the cases, children are not able to tell anyone about the abuse they have suffered. Additionally, Unicef estimates that about 3.3 million children in Pakistan are trapped in child labor, they often face all forms of abuse by their employers, however, their parents or guardians are unable to take an action due to poverty and the matter is often hushed.

Social and cultural constraints also act as significant deterrents that hinder individuals from reporting the crime. Recently, the Sindh Child Protection Authority chairperson Shamim Mumtaz visited a survivor of rape in Pannu Aqil and advised her and her family to take the matter to a jirga instead of ‘wasting time in going to police stations’. Such reprehensible remarks from a governmental official add fuel to fire and further discourage victims and survivors of child sexual abuse from reporting their case to the police.

Moreover, children are mostly dependent on adults when pursuing protection and justice. Many children who do not have a parent or guardian are unable to access the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Which is what needs to change. Police is the first point of contact in cases of child abuse in the CJS. Children who do not have a parent/guardian, and children who do have the support of a parent/guardian must be able to walk into a police station to lodge their complaint. Children have a right to be heard even if an adult is not present to support them.

However, research has indicated that harmful negative stereotypes by the police can further push children away from being able to obtain protection and justice. For example, child beggars, orphans, migrant children or children living on the streets are often mistaken as offenders when they are in fact victims and survivors of child abuse.

Moreover, Unicef estimates that in Pakistan, only 34 percent of children under five are registered at birth nationally. A birth certificate acts as an accurate record of age. Children who do not have a birth certificate are at the risk of being treated as adults by the police. Children belonging to the age group of 15-17 are most vulnerable to being treated as adults and child-sensitive mechanisms are not extended towards them.

To combat this, police officers must be given continuous ongoing education and training on appropriate responses to children reporting abuse and only Specialised Police Offers, who are specially trained and sensitised should deal with child survivors/victims.

Additionally, the environment of the police stations can be very intimidating for children; this can further traumatise the child and stop them from being able to lodge their complaint and record their statement. Although Women and Children Protection Desks have been established in a few police stations in Pakistan, child survivors need additional protection measures, such as a designated room and a child-friendly environment. The designated room should include paintings, board games, and toys, etc to help children feel safe at police stations.

A psychologist must also be present to provide the child with psychosocial counselling support. Further, a lawyer must be present to provide free legal aid. The children must also be provided with medical care on a priority basis. If a Medico-legal Officer (MLO) cannot be available in the police station, due to insufficient resources, then the children must be taken to the appropriate hospital immediately. Moreover, a referral mechanism must be established through which children who do not have a place to live are taken to a shelter home, such as Dar-ul-atfal, where they can be provided with a caring atmosphere.

The Gender Protection Unit in Islamabad, which was established in May 2021, operates in a similar capacity as a facilitation center. It registered 1,920 cases of child abuse during the last six months of 2020. Comparatively, the data revealed by the Sindh Police in 2020 stated that the police registered a total of 349 cases of child abuse across the province between 2014 and 2019. From this data, it can be inferred that the cases of child abuse remained immensely underreported in Sindh. As a result of underreporting, offenders escape the CJS and continue to inflict violence and abuse on children. They do not face the consequences of their heinous actions.

A designated child-friendly police station can make a tremendous difference in ensuring that child abuse is reported to the police. Therefore, the establishment of child-friend police stations that operate in the above-mentioned manner is the need of the hour.

About 39 percent of Pakistan’s population is under 18. Protecting children must be the utmost priority of the state as its constitutional obligation.

The writer is a barrister.