Child protection bureaus and shelters lack resources and administrative infrastructure to meet the requirements of the laws under which they were set up
esides generating a heated debate around underage marriages – forced or otherwise – and human trafficking, Dua Zehra’s case has once again brought to light the role and responsibilities of the state towards children.
According to the UNICEF, children in Pakistan are vulnerable to many forms of violence, exploitation and child trafficking. It says that even after almost 30 years since Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), no public coordinated child protection case management and referral system aligned with international standards has been established.
UN figures show that around 3.3 million Pakistani children are trapped in child labour. It is estimated that almost a quarter of the women aged 20-49 were married before the age of 15, and 31 percent before 18 years of age. Only 34 percent of children under five are registered at birth, nationally. Birth registration is a fundamental right of all children as legal proof of a child’s existence, identity and age.
Pakistan ratified the UNCRC in November 1990. To implement the convention’s provisions, Pakistan promulgated laws on the subject of child protection and established the National Commission on the Rights of Children (NCRC), child protection bureaus and shelters. In addition, laws have been enacted to address issues like juvenile justice, combating child and forced labour, preventing child abuse, prohibiting child marriages and realising socio-economic rights such as education, health, survival and development.
Unfortunately, the NCRC has observed that these bureaus, commissions and agencies have not been provided with adequate resources and necessary administrative infrastructure to enforce these laws, rules and regulations. In addition, there is an overlap and duplication in duties and functions of some of these administrative units.
According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department, government-run shelters face a range of difficult circumstances. It adds that some of the government shelters provide only short-term services, leading some victims to return to their abusers, including traffickers. In child protection cases, the authorities often return potential child victims to their families without effective safeguards to ensure the families will not subject the children to a violent situation again.
Currently, the Punjab operates women shelters in each of its 36 districts; Sindh operates five women shelters in its 29 districts and four centres that offer medical and legal aid and shelter for up to 72 hours to women in distress; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provides shelters in six of its 26 districts and has 10 welfare homes for exploited children; and Balochistan operates one shelter for women and one shelter for destitute male citizens in its 32 districts. The Islamabad Capital Territory has a family and rehabilitation centre that serves women and girls.
The provincial child protection units (CPUs) are active in the Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the KP. However, some CPUs face staffing gaps that affect the availability and appropriateness of care. There are 14 CPUs in the KP; 10 functional ones in the Punjab whereas units are under construction in the rest of the districts; 20 units in Sindh; and one each in Balochistan and Islamabad.
Sources says adequate funds are available to the CPUs in the Punjab but protection units in other provinces lack staff and resources. They say that access to some of the facilities is difficult. For example, the Child Protection Institute (CPI) in Islamabad is located in Hummak, at a point where there is no access using public transport. According to international standards, such facilities need to have police stations, hospitals etc within a kilometre.
Only the Punjab and Sindh provide shelter to children in distress (violence, abuse, forced marriage, addiction, etc), including young girls, that are referred by the police and/ or courts. The CPUs in the KP have just started providing services to young girls starting last month. Such services are not available in Islamabad.
Talking to The News on Sunday (TNS), Child Protection Institute (CPI) director Rabeea Hadi says that PC-1 (project digest) for a separate facility for girl child has been submitted. She says that these units have a large mandate and for the effective functioning of these units, resources matching that mandate are vital. She says that girl children in need of protection are currently referred to family and rehabilitation centres, Darul Amman or Edhi Centres.
Briefing TNS on facilities provided to a girl child at a Family and Rehabilitation Centre, Saira Furqaan, the centre’s director, says that they cater to girls above the age of 10. She says that the centre provides free legal, medical and psychosocial assistance to survivors who are referred to them by court, lawyers and other government functionaries. She says that rehabilitation for any survivor depends on the individual’s circumstances, adding that the centre follows up cases for three months, if allowed to do so by the survivor.
Another challenge related to these shelters is the rehabilitation of survivors when they leave the facility. A report by Rozan, a non-governmental organisation, titled Against All Odds - Research Report on Post Shelter Lives of Women Survivors of Violence, says that survivors face social stigma and harassment when they come out of the shelters as moving about by a woman or girl without family/ male protection is considered socially unacceptable behaviour.
The report suggests an increase in the number of shelters across the country, to ensure admission to shelters with or without court orders, province-specific communication strategy to raise awareness around child related issues and information dissemination to improve knowledge of procedural mechanisms, and to promote a positive image of support services.
Speaking to TNS, Afshan Tehseen Bajwa, the NCRC chairperson, says that the child protection system in Pakistan needs to be improved. “In cases like Dua Zehra, most of the time, government authorities and functionaries are in denial and delay the process,” she says. “It has been categorically obligated in ZARRA Act 2020 and the provincial laws such as the Sindh Child Protection Authority (Amendment) 2021 that an FIR of a missing child has to be registered within four hours of the incident and that a failure to do so will lead to criminal liability for government officials.”
She says that it is mandatory for police or any law enforcement agency to lodge an FIR on the receipt of a complaint by any person or child protection authority representative in this regard. The failure or non-registration of an FIR by police can result in punishment against the law enforcement officials, she says.
She says the government must train police, law enforcement, and support services to properly handle such cases, starting with providing shelter, social and medical support, and activating special courts to protect children and ensure swift justice. She says that appropriate directives should be issued by regulatory agencies like the PEMRA and the PTA to prohibit the release and sharing of names of victims/ survivors to the media, including social media.
The writer is a reporter at The News in Islamabad