International Women’s Day 2022 dawned with a global commitment to breaking bias, smashing stereotypes, rejecting inequality and eliminating discrimination. Nevertheless, the notion of ‘break the bias’ has yet not echoed in the tribal culture of Mianwali District of province Punjab where a seven-day-old baby girl was killed by her own father because he wanted a boy. Fatima got married to Shahzaib Khan two years ago. She gave birth to her first child, a baby girl, and named her Jannat, Heaven. Fatima’s husband believed that the birth of a baby girl brought shame to his family. Consequently, Shahzaib, who desperately wanted to have a son, got so angry that he shot the newborn five times with pistol at home, and escaped from the spot. This soul-wrenching incident brought tears to the eyes of everyone who envisions a gender-neutral world.
Regional Police Officer Sargodha Muhammad Faisal Rana who monitored the case on a daily basis, informed the National Commission on the Rights of the Child during a meeting that Fatima’s uncle is the complainant against Shahzaib Khan. Three special teams were constituted for the arrest of the accused. These special teams made great efforts, conducted raids at 30 different places and arrested accused Shahzaib from Bhakkar district. Nevertheless, the RPO also cautioned about the common legal and cultural barriers blocking access to justice in such cases. The protection of witnesses, compoundable offense, unavailability of any socio-psycho counseling for victims and widely accepted harmful social norms are few among many.
NCRC received 17 complaints from various districts of Punjab in the month of March from the entire province Punjab, ranging from child sexual abuse to murder. An eight-year-old girl was allegedly sexually abused by a teacher in a seminary in Golra village, Attock, while a 16-year-old boy who worked as a daily wager was raped by a man in Pindigheb. An 11-year-old girl Amna was allegedly physically abused by her the owners of a house in Faisalabad whereas a 10-year-old girl Zaineb was beaten badly by her school teacher in Muridke. Due to extreme stress and being hit by a rod, she had a nervous breakdown and subsequently died after three days. Zainab’s incident is not a first — the 14-year-old Hamza died after being subjected to corporal punishment by his teachers and so the list goes.
If our children are neither safe at homes and streets, nor protected at schools and religious seminaries then why does the province of Punjab yet not have a comprehensive law for child protection?
In the last few years, some significant initiatives have been taken by the government such as the establishment of the National Commission on the Rights of Children (NCRC), enactment of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act, 2020, the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018 and ICT Child Protection Act, 2020 as an indication of fulfilling the commitment of child protection. The course of action continued in 2021 and the Senate Standing Committee meeting approved the Juvenile Justice System (Amendment) Bill 2021, the Islamabad Capital Territory Child Protection (Amendment) Bill 2021, and the National Commission on the Rights of the Child (Amendment) Bill 2021.
It is worth noting that Punjab is the only province that yet does not have a comprehensive law for all children in need of protection and care
Besides being part of the drafting committee of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Pakistan was the first Islamic country and sixth in the world to sign and ratify the UNCRC. The convention elaborates the Survival, Development, Protection, and Participation rights of the children. The right to protection of the child is described in several articles of the UNCRC like Article 3, 19, 20, 24, 26, 27, 28, 32, 33, 34, 36, and 39. Likewise, the Constitution of Pakistan provides the legal framework for child protection, particularly Article 35 prescribes the state protect the marriage, the family, the mother, and the child. Articles 11 and 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan elaborate further on child protection. However, the increasing number of child rights violations elucidates that Pakistan has been facing serious challenges to adhere to its commitments to protect its children and to bring perpetrators to justice. Furthermore, Pakistan has been facing immense pressure from the international community to safeguard child rights. For instance, UNCRC is one of the conventions monitored by Treaty Implementation Cells established at the Federal and Provincial levels aiming at the implementation of international treaty obligations of Pakistan.
Punjab is the most prosperous province of Pakistan and home to 110 million people (53 percent of Pakistan’s population) and over 22 million children aged 5 to 16 years. However, the situation of child rights in Punjab is quite challenging. According to Sahil, a local NGO working for children’s rights, 57 percent of all cases of child abuse were reported in the province of Punjab in 2020. After the passing of the 18th Amendment, child-related matters are a provincial subject. The enactment of laws and implementation mechanisms also varies from province to province. It is worth noting that Punjab is the only province that yet does not have a comprehensive law for all children in need of protection and care.
A child needs protection if they are a victim of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Moreover, a child needs protection if he/she is subjected to physical and psychological violence, sexual abuse, or commercial sexual exploitation; forced into the worst forms of the child labor, exploitative labor, or beggary; subject to human trafficking within and outside Pakistan; being misused for drug trafficking or is subjected to abuse of substances like glue drugs, spirits; engaged in an armed conflict; without primary caregivers; and is affected or infected with HIV aids.
Since the provinces have their own demographic, political, socioeconomic, and cultural characteristics, the progress of child protection legislation was made autonomously in each province. Islamabad Capital Territory introduced Child Protection and Care Act-2018 while Balochistan enacted Child Protection Act, 2016. Sindh enacted the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act 2011, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa promulgated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Act 2010.
Although Punjab was the first province to enact a child-protection-specific legislation in Pakistan, the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004, the legislation aims at rescue, protective custody, care, and rehabilitation of only destitute and neglected children in the province. Furthermore, the proceedings under Part VII of PDNCA2004 can only be initiated about a child who has not attained the age of fifteen years withstanding that during the age of course of such proceedings he may have attained the age of eighteen years. For the implementation of the Act, the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau was established to address child protection issues in the province. The first amendment regarding the composition of the board was made in the Act in 2007. The PDNCA was later amended in 2017 for registration of organizations managing accommodation for the destitute and neglected children, creation of new offenses, and increasing penalties for the existing offenses. Although these amendments brought some improvement, they could not cover the need fully.
Consequently, the Government of Punjab constituted a high-level Technical Committee on 15 November 2019 to find a way forward. The committee is chaired by the Minister on Social Welfare/Law and comprises various Secretaries of relevant government line departments as members (Home, Law, Social Welfare, Human Rights, Health, Local Government, Planning & Development, Labour, Women Development, Prosecution, and Finance) and Child Protection and Welfare Bureau. It was discerned during the various meetings of the committee that the province needs comprehensive legislation for the protection, rehabilitation, and integration of all children in need of protection and care in the province. Subsequently, both the SWD Punjab and CPWB Punjab worked on it. The SWD proposed a new bill named “Punjab Child Protection Bill 2021 while CPWB proposed a new set of amendments in the existing PDNCA 2004. However, the legislative process is very slow and complex.
While considering the context of the province, some concrete measures are needed to be taken into consideration on war-footing by the provincial government to protect the children. In its recommendations submitted to chief minister Punjab, NCRC advised the government of Punjab to honor the recommendations and observations made by the international treaty bodies, including the harmonization of laws regarding the definition of Child. It was further recommended that a comprehensive Child Protection Policy should be introduced to provide proper guidelines to the legislatures for the promulgation of legislative reforms and to introduce the child protection systems at the provincial and district levels. Since Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children’s Act 2004 only caters to the destitute and neglected children, therefore NCRC strongly recommends a Comprehensive Child Protection Law in Punjab including all children in need of protection.