Child Rights in Pakistan: A Call for Reform and Political Will

By Arshad Mahmood

The need to protect children in Pakistan has never been greater. With indicators like Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) or child welfare benchmarks set under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Pakistan lags far behind in fulfilling our promises to our children. Last year’s floods only added to the already complex challenges of conflict, terrorism, the appalling state of the health and education sectors, and the lack of legislative initiatives. These failures of momentum combine with poor to non-implementation of existing laws.

To begin with, children in Pakistan continue to be affected by militancy. They have been the innocent victims of terrorist attacks carried out all across the country, such as when militants targeted school buses, killing and injuring many children. It is not just conflict that threatens Pakistani children, however. In Pakistan, child labour is on the rise. This is surprising since it is generally decreasing globally. Specifically, in Pakistan, child domestic labour is increasing.

While domestic labour might seem more tame than other abuses children could suffer (e.g., industrial labour, sex trafficking), some general cases over the last 18 months demonstrate how terrible of an abuse it is. Fifteen cases of death by torture of child domestic labourers were reported between January 2010 and the middle of 2011. Cases like the Shazia Masih case in Lahore have become popularized by the media, but other cases that involve torture that leads to lifelong disability or serious injuries are tracked by child rights groups. These numbers generally show Punjab as the province with the highest number of incidents, but the general increase in violence against children across Pakistan indicates the need for a federal response to this scourge.

Violence against children truly is widespread: at homes, in the streets, in institutions meant to protect children, and in the criminal justice system. Terrible incidents like the Sialkot lynching of two brothers or the rape of a 13-year-old girl in Wah Cantonment police station are some of the publicized examples of this increasing trend, but there are many other examples. These other cases involve indoctrination and use of children as suicide bombers, torture of child domestic labourers, and physical punishment of students, sometime with fatal results. The perpetrators of this violence are almost always adults in their role as guardians, teachers, relatives and even law enforcement personnel: the very people that children should be most safe with.

The Pakistani criminal justice system specifically is a challenge for children. Lack of a concerted government effort, due to absence of a statutory body for children, has resulted in failure to include international and national standards in the training curricula of judicial workers, police, prison officials, probation officers and related government agencies. These officials are generally unaware of their obligations toward children, and as a result, children face further hardships in criminal justice procedures.

Pakistan is now a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which obligates us to ensure that all inhabitants have equal civil and political rights. This is not the case for the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and this significantly impacts the rights of children in those regions. In the meantime, Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) administered in the FATA imposes draconian measures upon innocent women and children waiting in prisons under its collective responsibility clause. The issue of FCR must be resolved, which would require an amendment to Article 247 (Administration of Tribal Areas) of Pakistan’s Constitution in order to bring FATA into the mainstream.

In addition to the movement for Constitutional Amendment, concrete steps at the policy level must be taken to implement the Concluding Observations and Recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on Pakistan’s last Periodic Report. The report called for, among other steps, approval of a national child protection policy and related laws; increase in resource allocation for health, education and child protection; establishment of a national commission on the rights of children; and inclusion of child rights in the training curricula of all professional training colleges and academies.

We all need to work together to ensure that the rights of children enshrined in the Constitution, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Islamic injunctions are honored. The government and the parliament need to prioritize child rights and immediately pass all pending legislation. There should be proper budgetary allocation for all child-related initiatives, and a national commission should be established to work for the promotion and protection of the rights of the child and to ensure implementation of Pakistan’s national and international obligations. The plight of children in Pakistan can be improved on a sustainable basis by taking these initiatives. The key, however, is political will.

About the Author: 

Arshad Mahmood is the Executive Director of Pakistan’s Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC). Mr. Mahmood holds a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics (LSE). Mr. Mahmood is also a member of the Child Rights Steering Committee established under the Federal Ombudsman Order 1983.

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