Well-being of children is reliant on government policies on education, public health, judicial systems and other subjects.
uman rights are standards that acknowledge and preserve the dignity of all people. Human rights regulate how governments and people interact with each other. No government, organisation or person has the authority to infringe on the rights of others. Everyone, including children, has the right to exercise their fundamental human rights.
The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. It was not regarded then as a binding document. Instruments like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which are binding on states parties, serve to bind the rights outlined in the UDHR. A convention or covenant was needed for child rights. After a protracted consultative process and acknowledging the need to protect children around the world, the United Nations came forward with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, which was approved by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989. Pakistan was the sixth country in the world to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1990. On November 20, the Universal Children’s Day is celebrated to encourage global understanding of children’s rights and to improve children’s welfare.
According to the convention, “all human beings under the age of 18 are considered children” (unless appropriate national laws recognise an earlier age of maturity). Children are unique in the sense that they are neither their parents’ property nor of the state nor are they merely “our future”. Children are reliant beings. Their physical, mental and emotional development may be at risk due to the actions of adults and due to poverty, inadequate healthcare, nutrition, environment and disasters. They are also affected by government policies on education, public health, judicial systems and other subjects.
Like every other society, children in Pakistan are susceptible to abuse, exploitation and violence (physical, psychological and sexual), including child trafficking and economic exploitation. Unfortunately, there is no centralised data available that could accurately depict the reality of child rights violations and the efficient management of these issues.
The legislation to establish the National Commission for Child Rights (NCRC) was introduced in 2017. The law doesn’t give financial and administrative autonomy to the commission, as required for qualification under international standards and requirements of the Paris Principles for national human rights institutions (NHRIs). These are not only vital for effective operation but also for acceptance by the international community. However, the NCRC has started playing its role in the capacity it has been given by the law. For instance, it recently launched policy briefs on different child rights issues including child domestic labour, which is a good beginning towards understanding its prevalence. The document recommends the federal government to completely prohibit the slavery-like practices by amending criminal law, as well as the provincial governments to take immediate legislative actions to end this menace by strengthening child labour laws. The report of the child labour survey in the Punjab has been released by the provincial government. Other provinces are yet to finalise the data and report.
Another positive development has been the establishment of a parliamentary caucus on children’s rights following a National Assembly resolution. The leader of this caucus will be Mehnaz Akbar Aziz, a seasoned politician, and an expert on children’s rights, who moved the said resolution in the assembly. The caucus will serve as a parliamentary oversight body to protect children’s rights in Pakistan.
Every state must provide children with an adequate remedy and reparation for human rights breaches, such as child sexual abuse and exploitation. In a report about sexual exploitation of children, recently published by PAHCHAAN and ECPAT International, major challenges were identified that still need to be addressed, including the lack of mandatory reporting mechanisms, inadequate investigations and prosecution, the rarity of access to free legal aid and psychosocial support during legal proceedings, the availability of recovery and reintegration services and the lack of compensation for victims. Meaningful implementation of laws, for example The Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Act, 2020 and The Anti Rape (Investigation and Trial) Act, 2021, is a big challenge.
The implementation on the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018 has also become a significant issue. The rules that will allow state functionaries to implement this law have yet to be passed in all provinces and territories. In their absence, children have to go through arbitrary and cruel practices.
Every stakeholder must remember that every child has the rights to life, development, protection, dignity and equality. We must all do our part to uphold these rights.
The writer is a law practitioner in Lahore. He tweets at @miqdadnaqvi