TNS talks to Valerie Khan and Iftikhar Mubarik on child abuse
The News on Sunday (TNS) talks to Valerie Khan, the executive director of Group Development Pakistan (GDP) – an organisation working on protecting and promoting child rights and strengthening child protection – and Iftikhar Mubarik, executive director of Search for Justice and Child Advocacy Network about the vulnerability of certain groups of children to abuse, steps that have been/are being taken to tackle the problem and how child courts can help reduce the trauma suffered by victims of child abuse.
TNS: How vulnerable do you think our children are to abuse, especially now that we’re living in a digital age?
Valerie Khan (VK): Children’s vulnerability [to abuse] has increased for sure. You basically have a number of children taking to the internet each day, which means increased exposure to the digital environment while they are not necessarily prepared to safely manage that environment. Secondly, we have a digital gap which is not only a gender gap but also a generation one. As a parent, I am not trained and equipped to empower my child in an appropriate manner to identify danger and then manage that danger online and report it to me. Thirdly, there is an intersection between the offline and the online environment. We may see things that are online but they reflect a reality that exists offline. With the overall socio-economic disparities that have been exacerbated by Covid-19, the lockdowns and the fact that many activities are now online, there is more room for children to be abused, exploited and be put onto child sexual abuse material that is later sold and disseminated via the Dark Web.
Iftikhar Mubarik (IM): The internet is a useful place, and we can witness its utility very well in a post-Covid world. But we have exposed our children to the wonders of the internet without equipping them with ways to manage its dark side. There are no training programmes where children can be taught how to use the internet in a safe, responsible manner, focusing on how to ensure online privacy. Neither schools/teachers nor parents have the necessary skills and the motivation to indulge in these conversations and tackle the matter in an intelligent way. To this day our collective approach towards sexual abuse is reactionary and not proactive.
(TNS): Which groups in Pakistan are the most susceptible to abuse in your opinion? Does the social class of these children affect how vulnerable they are?
VK: Abuse is present across the board regardless of different socio-economic factors, ethnicity and culture factors. However, there are ways of measuring an increase in the potential vulnerability of children. Socio-economic distress is one, food security is another. The less the food security and economic resources, the more vulnerable the child is to being put into underage labour and in other abusive situations. But some other isolated criteria can also depict an increase in vulnerability, for example, remarriage and sudden entry of a stepfather/stepmother in a child’s life or absence of parental oversight. It is true that if you go by the large percentage, or at least if we go by what is being reported, children whose families live below the poverty line or just above it and those who have food security issues are definitely highly vulnerable. Also, a differently-abled child is three times more likely to be abused than a child who has no disability.
IM: Children involved in domestic labour, working behind closed doors, are highly vulnerable to abuse. Another vulnerable group of children is the one either working on the streets or worse, living there. In the more affluent areas of Pakistan, there is a greater sense of social taboo attached to abuse leading to less cases being reported there. Due to this, there is no reliable record for the vulnerability of children in these areas.
TNS: What steps can be taken to tackle the grave child abuse situation in Pakistan and what has already been done?
VK: There has been an increase in the general need to abide by international safeguarding standards and to bring about policy and legal reforms. Also, certain child protection programmes and the recent increase in reported cases of sexual violence against children have led to an acute awareness of the need to not only enact laws but also to do something more tangible about enforcing them. When we begin working on encountering child abuse, we really need to focus on prevention first. Rather than responding, the ideal position will be that no child has to face such a situation in the first place. That can be done by enforcing the child protection laws that are already present. What we need to do is to put in place what we call a multi-stakeholder system-coordinated child-protection mechanism to assess the situation and rescue the child. The idea behind this is that there needs to be a safe and confidential reporting mechanism to tackle abuse cases properly. A system that can assess the extent to which the child is at risk, or is in need of protection and care and then approach the court with questions regarding how this situation should be dealt with. Do we place the child in an institution or give custody to another family member? Questions like that. This is all case management which includes not only the rescue but also the protection and rehabilitation of the child. You need to deal with the Social Welfare Department, the Health Department, the judiciary, with the police and with the Education Department on behalf of the child. This is why it is called a multi-stakeholders coordinated system. So far, all of this is dealt with in an ad hoc manner and no specific procedure has been put in place. I think we see interesting developments in all the provinces regarding this but a structured process to go about it is lacking.
IM: I think the government should try to include soft messages about child protection in the syllabus. They already have textbook development/curriculum boards with qualified people hence they have the capacity to do so. The government also has a full-fledged training system, called Quaid-i-Azam Academy for Educational Development (QAED), which has been put in place to enhance professional learning capabilities of in-service teachers. The duration of existing training courses can be increased by just a few hours to include some content about child protection. It can also be very fruitful if a systematic departmental mechanism is introduced where the career progression of teachers is made dependent on the learning of this specific module. Only then can a systematic/gradual improvement in the situation be brought about, in my opinion.
TNS: Some schools have been reluctant to talk about abuse, but recent cases have shown that this attitude can lead to further problems. What roles, if any, do you think can schools and parents play on an individual level to tackle this problem in an effective manner? How important is the role of teachers to help vulnerable groups of children?
VK: When you talk about parents and communities, I think the response is generally more positive from the [traditionally] vulnerable communities. You can easily talk to communities where people have nothing else to lose. But it is extremely difficult to do so in the case of private schools especially the elite schools because the power structure there is such that it is easier to get into denial and victim-blaming behaviours than finding a solution. I think the state needs to take the initiative so that we can have a culture/gender-sensitive dialogue about this issue. The caregivers and institutions need to be told that they are accountable for the children’s well-being but the government will support them to put relevant mechanisms in place, and will facilitate them on important issues.
IM: Teachers can be the best people to detect vulnerable children and the signs of abuse because they are easier to train than the parents. Usually, teachers are better educated too, especially in rural areas. A discussion on children’s behaviour should be made compulsory at parent-teacher meetings, especially if the children are showing signs of abuse. Parents and schools need to join hands to tackle the problem and it is a continuous process. While a whole lot of children are out of schools right now, I feel that we can begin with focusing on schools as they already have a system in place that can be utilised. Once this is successful, more vulnerable groups of children can be tackled. That will likely involve strategies that are entirely different. But the government will have to take the lead in this as no other organisation has the kind of reach that the government has. They can even reach out to Wafaqul Madarris to hold talks about the increasing incidents of abuse happening in madrassas and how to control the situation. If the government eventually manages to prepare educational content related to child protection, the same content can be shared with the madrassas. The point is to begin somewhere.
TNS: Valerie, you are currently involved in the process of establishing child courts. Could you please explain how these courts will be beneficial for victims of child abuse?
VK: Two kinds of children usually need to go to court; children who have committed a crime (in conflict) or those who have been a victim of an offence (in conduct). When we studied the population of children in conflict, many of them come from highly vulnerable groups. They were either abused or were part of some other unfortunate scenario. By putting these children in jail or subjecting them to abuse during the investigation, we are not going to turn them into positive citizens. They’re going to be further victimised. When we are dealing with children who have been victims of abuse or have witnessed an offence, the process is so traumatic that people don’t even want to report these cases or bring their children to courts. The process of establishing child courts is a state-led process and begins at the request of the judiciary. It is a part of the criminal justice reform agenda and to some extent the prison reform agenda also. It means that the state and the judiciary have decided that rather than sending these children to juvenile prisons we need to follow a reformative justice approach. For children who are victims, it needs to be understood that healing requires justice, requires the state, the institutions, the around them to be able to continually reassure them that what happened to them was not their fault. One aspect of establishing child courts is limiting the child’s exposure to investigative torture especially in cases of child abuse. It is made sure that their case is not left unaddressed for a long time, video linkage system is in place so that the child doesn’t have to face the abuser and there is not a lot of traumatic cross-questioning. If properly established, it is basically an extraordinary model to help vulnerable children.